Q+Art: Painter Paul Lewin Imagines Black Futures by Looking Into the Past
“World-building” is a term you’ll hear a lot from writers, especially when it comes to science fiction and fantasy. Paul Lewin, though not a writer, became deeply interested in the possibilities of a fictionalized universe early in his artistic life. Born in Jamaica, a toddler-aged Lewin immigrated to the US in the late ‘70s, just as interest in sci-fi films exploded around the world. Now based in Miami, FL, the painter fuses his love of fantasy with the histories, customs, and rituals of Jamaica, the Caribbean, and Africa.
About a decade ago, Lewin began researching his Jamaican ancestry in order to create more culturally meaningful work. “Rituals, folklore, music, and art have all been passed down from generation to generation through the ancient art of storytelling,” Lewin writes in his artist statement. The mostly female figures in his jewel-toned paintings are a hypnotic blend of traditional African dress, futuristic symbols, and non-Western mythology culled from centuries of oral storytelling. “They symbolize my connection to Africa, the Caribbean, and the diaspora,” the artist explains.
Like other British-Caribbean colonies, Jamaica’s was a slave-driven economy until the 1830s. The Atlantic slave trade, a hugely profitable enterprise, supplied the colony’s booming sugarcane plantations with free labor for centuries, despite frequent revolts. By then, little remained of the country’s native inhabitants, the Taino and Arawak peoples. With its focus on history as a blueprint for the future, Lewin’s work attempts to reconstruct an ancestral past with many blank spaces and question marks. Here, he enters the pantheon of Afrofuturist artists, drawing inspiration from Black sci-fi authors like Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson.
Afrofuturism takes many forms—including speculative fiction, music, and fashion—but in all variations, it aims to reconstruct Black identity through futuristic visions, as seen through the eyes of African diasporic communities. Lewin, who designed the cover for Afrofuturist writer N.K. Jemisin’s recent book How Long Til Black Future Month, has remarked on storytelling as a form of rebellion for communities whose ancestral roots have been severed. “Creating this series of works was my way of honoring the legacy of creative resistance that my ancestors lived,” he notes in a recent interview. “My work tells the story of me.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Paul Lewin discusses sci-fi authors Octavia Butler and N.K. Jemisin, his love of bad sitcoms, and cultivating community and success with “smaller art villages” that exist outside The Art World at large.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
PL: Art and Fear, The War of Art.
If you could have dinner with any artist, living or dead, who would it be?
PL: Author Octavia Butler.
What are you trying to express with your art?
PL: The story of myself and my ancestors.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
PL: Bad sitcoms.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
PL: Book cover for Sci-fi author N.K. Jemisin.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
PL: Measure twice, cut once.
What is one thing you would like to change about the art world?
PL: I don't think I would change anything about the art world. My focus has always been on cultivating new, smaller art villages. With social media and the internet playing such an important role in our society today, I don't believe being a part of THE art world is necessarily needed to have success as an artist.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
PL: Historically significant. But if I had my choice, I want both, lol!
What are you listening to in the studio right now?
PL: Sci-fi movie soundtracks.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
PL: During the lockdowns, I painted more than ever. There was a lot of isolation, but it also took me deeper into my work.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
PL: I think virtual art shows will continue to happen along with traditional shows. Eventually, things will get back to normal, and I don't foresee any long-term effects.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
PL: I am very excited to try and take my artwork into new mediums. I'm considering different types of sculptural work.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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