A Very British Art Problem: Dale Lewis
CW: overtly sexual and violent images.
Last year walking through the city of Norwich, a friend and I approached an art gallery. Through the large pane glass windows we saw a massive painting showing what appeared to be Black figures. She and I were very intrigued because it is not often that in a predominately white city such as Norwich, we see work centering Blackness. Especially not at this art gallery where these paintings were displayed. When we were face to face with the painting, our expressions grew long with despair. I was confronted with a work full of chaos, violence and death - decapitated Black men's heads with guns shoved into their mouths. What I was looking at was utter and total depravity. I began to think that surely this could not be the art of a Black British artist. This is not to say that I am coming from a Black British cultural context or background, because I am not. I’m a Puerto Rican from Chicago, a city known for its gun violence, and an island that, despite having some of the strictest gun laws, it is still an island plagued with gun violence as well.
I thought that it couldn't have been painted by a Black British artist because it felt far too…well, it felt like it was, as they say, taking the piss. There was no familiarity, no understanding, no treatment with care that I could see from painter to subject. It felt like a scene depicting what many whites call “black on black crime” but, of course, through the white gaze. This is when I learned Dale Lewis, a guy from Essex now living in London, had just received a nice big grant. His work included painting the Black figures and their bodies as what I call a ‘site of violence’. White artists, in particular white male artists, have consistently been turning out artworks filled with Black bodies being destroyed. If there's one thing that white men know how to do it's kill Black people and if they're not doing it physically, they manifest this on canvas. There is no conversation being had in these works; as Dale Lewis has said he observes his east London neighborhood and returns to his studio and paints what he observed. It begs the question: does Dale Lewis really know any Black Brits? Furthermore who is his artwork for? I believe his artwork is for those middle-class young to older hipsters who love to believe they understand that the social ills of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. exist, but are never ever willing to engage in discussions about their place and role in these systems.
Lewis’ audience is the protected, delicate-like-a-flower classes of British society. These people read the New Statesman and feel like they understand our current political and social climate, but they probably have no idea what it's like to live that life.
And that's what makes Lewis’ work so incredibly frustrating. It will be shown and revered in the very space that harbors a climate of excluding students of color - who are there to learn how to make art - forcing them into utter silence and failure because of racist pedagogical policy. The sorts of spaces and people that love work where Black death and violence is central, especially when painted by a white man, is the exact same type of place that will bully its Black female students into submission and fear.
Art pedagogy is a tight and imperialist framework. Furthermore, it was at this very institution where I encountered a print of black slaves lining the bottom of a oil tanker. I say semi sarcastically, I suppose this work was meant to of course point the finger at America's capitalism and its culture of decadence in line with issues of human rights. As with some of this artist’s other works, which had a spotlight on America, there was no discussion of the relationship between America and Britain. Furthermore there was no discussion on Britain’s own history with violent colonialism and its contribution to thousands of years of decadence and influence in the West. But, I digress.
To see dismembered Black bodies, Black women having their clothes pulled and ripped from their bodies exposing large long breasts, Black men sucking a teet of older, white women is not a glimpse into “Brexit Britain”, but an exaggeration of society without nuance, completely rooted in the white imagination. For me, this does not come from a place where genuine interaction and understanding of the Black British zeitgeist. Perhaps it is just my own proximity to a variety of Black British artists & curators, where none of them discuss their work or practice as voyaging into this nightmare of an image.
This is not new in Britain or globally. Just in 2014, the Barbican cancelled the contentious, and rightly so, work by white South African artist Brett Bailey dubbed “The Human Zoo”. A large installation piece with Black people placed in various rooms that mirrored exhibitions of the past, where whites would gather to point and leer at Black people and People of Color from the colonies. There is a whole canon of art where white men have dedicated their practices to painting People of Color in a myriad of violent and sexual ways - it’s called art history. But what about those works that accurately depict the the historical presence of Black people in Europe? Hardly ever discussed. Their presence is erased. The Black figures in medieval religious paintings often cropped out, suggesting our existence is a manifestation solely from slavery. For example, how many people know about the Black dude in the horn section of Henry VIII’s court? He’s been documented. He was real, his name is recorded as John Blanke and yet Black people like him have been excluded from mainstream canonical discourse. What I am reminded of when I see Lewis’ work is the sort of art that is palpable to self aggrandizing middle class heroes of society. The type that can comfortably say yes we know racism is bad, but only to other like minded, well-off whites who don’t ever actually do anything about racism, or have people of color in their immediate circle of friends. That character trait is about as sturdy as wet bread. In my experience, they may know various people of color, but certainly not in a true intimate capacity where full humanity and experience is recognized. They don’t have the ability to view Black people and People of Color as fully formed beings with emotions and lives to lead.
Dale Lewis takes a stroll in a gentrified neighborhood in London observes what he understands to be reality, and stays in his studio, painting prolifically large work after the large work of what he believes to be the real true London experience. He has said so himself in various interviews. I would say he does not engage with these communities, he does not have a place in cultivating and nurturing the culture. He merely reports to his investors what the ‘animals’ outside are doing. Through art he profits from what he believes to be a Black reality - which is clearly sexual assault, abuse, violence, decadence and more. Although Black figures are not the only kind he paints, they are consistently present in his work. This again is not new when it comes to Blackness manifesting through the white gaze; Blackness to Dale Lewis, like in the thoughts of his Victorian ancestors, is pathological & animalistic. Something to poke at.
Three Young White Men and a Black Woman by Christiaen van Couwenbergh (1632) As seen with Picasso's version of Olympia in 1901, other male European artists saw the sexualized female as primitive like the Black female, exemplifed in works from Van Gogh's paintings of prostitutes or Gauguin’s work with the Tahitian maidens. Writer James Smalls observes “A contemporary art historian, Griselda Pollock, has noted that in Western art black women typically represent ' a space in the text of a masculinist modernist culture in which flourishes an Orientalizing, Africanist fantasy that circulates between artists, their models, and contemporary art historians in the twentieth century(Smalls).” - Artist Marcia X The Black figures are discussed in some recent writings about Lewis’ work, how could they not be? Especially in contrast to the white figures they’re often painted along side of. They are so clearly BLACK with their wide noses and bright red lips, often resembling golliwogs. But probing into Lewis’ own whiteness and how he paints Black figures, the gentrified neighborhoods in which he resides and monitors, and the racial dynamics of all these things has yet to be thoroughly investigated, in my opinion, by recent art writers. That could be because the writer, for instance for Frieze, writing on Lewis’s latest show was also, a white guy. We know how this operates.
Wives and Girlfriends
I’m insulted by the distressing depictions of Black women’s sexuality on his canvas. I no longer want to see Black boys decapitated, and I certainly don’t want to see large rooms filled with white people staring at this kind of work with their thin mouths open with faux amazement at typical white male art. It is particularly insulting because artists of color are prevented from creating holistic and honest work about their own battle within this racist society, and within an educational artistic structure that does nothing but silence them and profit off their pain. We are gaslit at every turn and denied entry unless we play by their rules. We’re verbally and sexually harassed and assaulted by professors and students. We’ve had enough. The Black British artists that I know make deeply nuanced, tender work. The Black British artists that I now cherish their communities, their elders, and their own well-being, despite an overwhelming hateful and deadly backlash to their existence by White British society. This is not about aesthetics. Although… there is something to be said about how similar stylistically he is to Jean Michel Basquiat. An Afro-Caribbean man, a Haitian and Puerto Rican member of the Diaspora, an addict, a homeless man, a planter of seeds in contemporary Black Diaspora culture. It is interesting and yet incredibly sad to think of how Lewis would perceive Basquiat if he saw him on the street and later painted him. Considering that Lewis’s color choice for his Black subjects is the same as animals he paints, I honestly do not want to imagine it. White artists in this country get pass after pass. There are not enough Black people and People of Color teaching and tutoring art. There is a void of honesty and truth about the role art plays in reinforcing racism and sexism in Western society. We are not properly taught art history, and we, as Black women and Women of Color, are forced to learn how to make art about our lives in comparison to white colonizers that have made their mark using the aesthetics of our cultures. What more is there to say? Art is trolling me.