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A conversation between Bonington Gallery’s director Tom Godfrey and artist and curator Cedar Lewisohn over email during October 2022.

Artist Cedar Lewisohn. Photo by Sophie Dawson, 2021.

Tom Godfrey: Hi Cedar, initially it’d be great if you could offer an introduction to your practice, including the mediums you utilise and the ideas you explore.

Cedar Lewisohn: I’m an artist, writer and curator. Curating is really my main ‘day job’, but for this conversation I’ll focus on my visual art, studio practise. But to be honest, all areas of my work feed into each other.

In the studio – my work is often centred around drawings, which I translate into wood carvings, books and publications. Recently, I’ve used the wood carvings as the basis to make a virtual space and moving images. The subject matter for the past five years or so has focused on reappropriating images from various museum collections. Often images related to African, ancient Egyptian or Mesopotamian collections in those museums. The idea of mixing the very analogue process of the wood carved images, and turning that into a virtual space really appealed to me.

TG: What constitutes your research ­– what types of things do you like to read, watch or listen to?

CL: I’m always researching in some way or another. I’ve spent lots of time over the past few years visiting historic museum collections, and sometimes speaking to curators, finding out about the history of objects, and how they came into the collection. I had no idea the debates about contested museum objects would explode into the public consciousness in the way they have over the last year or so, in the wake of Covid and Black Lives Matter.

In terms of what I read or watch, it’s very, very varied. I tend to listen to lectures and audio books. I like highbrow things as well as total trash. In my digital library right now, I’ve got Black Skin White Masks by Franz Fanon, Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis, and I just really enjoyed David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History. In terms of music, I flick between a bit of drill, like 67, lots of reggae and dub, like Scientist, also lots of bands I’ve been into over the years, like Autechre or Slowdive. I mean this list could go on for a very long time. It just depends on my mood and the day.

Cedar Lewisohn Untitled (Mesopotamian and Egyptian Gods) Hand Pressed Woodcut on paper with spray paint and ink, 2013.

TG: As you mention above, your overall practice encapsulates several different strands, including artmaking, curating and writing. Can you talk about what it’s like to work across these different areas – what overlaps, connections or separations may exist?

CL: To be honest, everything just feeds into each other, and it just makes sense for me. Curating is very collaborative, and really the area of curating I’ve mainly been involved with is in institutions. I enjoy bringing art projects to audiences and doing projects at scale. There are lots of negotiations and relationships, but when it works out, it’s extremely rewarding. I worked on a project called Dub London a couple of years ago, and that really got me into the history of Jamaican music and soundsystem culture. I never really knew the difference between, say rocksteady and ska before. But I’m really into rocksteady now.

As part of that research, I became more interested in Patois and the language used in the lyrics of the music. So, in the first lockdown during the pandemic, I did a course on Patois with a Jamaican poet and teacher Joan Hutchinson. It was fascinating to learn about the history of the language and the meaning behind many phrases in Jamaican English. So that is where the title for the exhibition at Bonington comes from.

With my studio practice, in essence, it is quite a tactile process. It’s physical and centres around things I make with my hands. The research I do for curatorial projects often feeds into my studio practice. I mean, all the time I spend in historic museums looking at objects and re-drawing them, could be seen as a form of curating. I also do lots of different types of writing, from short stories and fiction to straight up writing about art and culture.  Recently, I’ve been doing what I call ‘Rants’. They are short texts that are quite funny, and a place to vent. I have all these ‘notes’, that I was planning to use in longer texts. Again, it’s almost a curatorial thing, if I was visiting an artist’s studio, and they had all this writing, in the form of a few sentences, my advice to them would be, just show the texts as they are. So, I decided to take some of my own advice.

TG: I’m interested in the immediacy and boldness you employ when manoeuvring between the different medias in your practice. For example, going from a woodcut to a VR experience, and the ease at which you appear to move between these different platforms. Can you talk more about this please?

CL: I aways do a lot of things at once. So, it’s often about how the projects fit together conceptually. With the VR piece, it’s made using hundreds of scans of my woodcut prints. So, the idea is partly to creative a digital experience that is also quite handmade or analogue. It’s partly a daft idea that I’ve followed through with but I do think there is a difference between handmade moving image work and digital animation. If you look at early Disney animation for example, when the individual cells are hand drawn and coloured, they have an energy and beauty that is lost when the process is digitised. So, I wanted to take this idea, of bringing back the handmade to the virtual space. Obviously, it’s not very practical. But who wants practical art?

TG: I like what you say above “…if I was visiting an artist’s studio, and they had all this writing, in the form of a few sentences, my advice to them would be, just show the texts as they are. So I decided to take some of my own advice”. It seems as though you’ve been able to internalise some of the objectivity that being a curator often affords. This is usually applied to other people’s work, but here it seems that you are able to look at your work through the eyes of a different position. Is this fair to say, and what does being a curator bring to your art, and what does your art bring to your curating?

CL: I love making art and I love organising art projects. These are separate disciplines that relate to each other but are far from being the same thing. I think most artists have to have a certain self-criticality and ability to self-edit.  I also think artists can often be great curators. For me, having quite a lot of institutional curatorial experience, this does feed into my studio work. Some of my research processes, looking at historic museum collections and objects, could easily been seen as a curatorial practice. In terms of my art influencing my curating… Sometimes it seems like 90 per cent of curating is bureaucracy – so it takes an artist to cut through and just say, “here’s a crazy idea, let’s do it…”  Which does loosely fit my curatorial approach.

TG: Without giving too much away, could you talk a little about some of your ideas and thinking for the exhibition at Bonington. The title ‘Patois Banton’ appears to highlight the ease you have in mixing together different reference points in a respectfully irreverent and generative way.

CL: During one of the [Covid-19] lockdowns, for some reason I decided to do Patois lessons. Because my heritage is Jamaican, there is something slightly ridiculous about this. Imagine an English person wanting to have lessons in how to speak Cockney. But still, I couldn’t speak Patois, so I did some lessons. I found an amazing tutor in Jamacia, and we did the classes online. Joan Hutchinson, the tutor, is a poet in her own right, and takes the subject really seriously. It was great to dive into the subject. It was quite academic, looking the history of words, grammar, all sorts. But also, folk stories, songs, and lots of meaning behind these things. There is so much Patois used in the English language, in music and conversation. But people often don’t know the history and context of these words. ‘Banton’ is a word people might, or might not be familiar with, it just means storyteller, something like the griot, in West African tradition. So, Patois Banton seemed like a good title for the show.

TG: Some of the source imagery that you use for your drawings, I’m thinking of the Black Drawings that you produced whilst on residency at the Jan Van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, are dense monochrome renderings of paintings by European Expressionist painters (although I think you include a Basquiat in this series). What is it about this group of artists that you have chosen to reference, and, by reducing these works to a singular form of execution is there any potential commentary/criticism being paid towards the established and widely adopted, western-centric/European cannons within art-history?

CL: The Black Drawings series was an exploration with the European fascination with so-called ‘Primitivism’ from the first part of the 20th Century.

The series came about quite spontaneously but due to having time and freedom of being on a residency at Jan Van Eyck Academie, I was able to fully explore. Before starting at the JVA around 2014, I saw a Hannah Höch exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Some of her collages which included images of African women intrigued me, so I took a few photographs. Obviously, the Höch images inspire lots of questions around cultural appropriation, depictions of the black body by white artists and so on. It started a train of thought about huge numbers of Modernist artists, who had done the same thing. So, when I was in Maastricht at the JVA, I spent a lot of time visiting museums and collections in that region, places like Cologne, Brussels, Aachen, Liège.

I kept seeing more and more work, sometimes by quite surprising artists, who you would not associate with African imagery, such as Fernand Léger, or Francis Picabia, Lots of German Expressionists, The Blue Rider Group. They all had works with African influences. So, I just re-drew them, but almost entirely in black. It was my way of re-appropriating the works, or “stealing them back,” as I used to say at the time.

It was not a super critical attack on the artists I was looking at. I was not trying to “take them down”. I actually love many of the artists’ work I was looking at. It was more about pointing out this massive influence of African imagery on Modernist aesthetics.

Cedar Lewisohn, Excerpt from The Marduk Prophecy, published by Slimvolume, 2020.

TG: I like your reference to early animation, that would turn hand-drawn cells into cinematic films. It would be great if you could go into a little more detail about the relationship between your lino-cuts and VR experiences. It feels that the ‘gulf’ you present between these mediums is wider than early Disney, and I guess these chasms will only grow as technology develops.

CL: The link between early animation and the digital space is something I’ve been thinking about fairly recently. I was doing some curatorial research a few years ago into early film and moving image, which is what perhaps first sparked my interest.

When we look at early hand drawn animations, there is a certain magic in the movement of the images, that to me, seems lost when the process is digitised. It’s the analogue v. digital debate, I guess.

With visual material, I do think there is a certain aura that we subconsciously recognise when the human hand has made something. With AI art and image production, this is an area I think more and more people will become concerned with. If AI can an make any image or object that that can be imagined, what is the actual point of having a human do it? Humans are kind of a pain in the arse, in comparison to a nice subservient AI programme. AI programmes don’t need lunch breaks, they don’t ask for pay rises and so on.

So ultimately, I’m trying to think about analogue virtual spaces, that have to be handmade by me.  It’s a slightly ridiculous proposition at this point, but with the virtual space that uses woodcut and lino prints in the exhibition, we can see a type of prototype of what I’m thinking about.

Cedar Lewisohn, The Marduk Prophesy cover.

TG: Finally, I’d like to hear more about your use of the book format. Due to their scale, the experience of looking and ’reading’ becomes a very physical and shared experience. By showing drawings in this way, the viewer(s) can only experience 1-2 images at a time, and not the full series in one go around the walls of a gallery. As a comparison, Andy Warhol’s ‘Shadow Paintings’ come to mind for how they are shown at DIA Art Foundation, but they could almost be pages from a book – or maybe cells from an animation.

CL: Books and printed publications have been something I’ve always enjoyed as an alternative display space. Again, it’s mixing curatorial and studio practice. Playing with the scale of the books adds a level of drama and spectacle that I really enjoy. When you have these massive books, just the act of looking at them and turning the pages becomes a performance. It turns the act of looking into a physical experience. It also slows down the way it’s possible to view the images and pages. So, it asks a lot from the viewer. But books suit me as a medium. Books are somewhat undervalued as a medium right now, but I have a long-term self-belief that the appreciation for the medium will increase.

Catch Cedar’s exhibition Patois Banton in the gallery from 21 January – 11 March 2023.

Cedar and Jamaican writer and teacher Joan Andrea Hutchinson will be holding a free in-conversation event to discuss Jamaican Patois on Thursday 16 February.

A red and black screen printed image with the words Patois Banton written on top

Cedar Lewisohn
Patois Banton
21 January – 11 March 2023
Launch: Friday 20 January 6–8 pm

Bonington Gallery, Nottingham Trent University, Dryden Street, Nottingham. NG1 4GG

Patois Banton is a new exhibition by artist, writer, and curator Cedar Lewisohn, on show at the Bonington Gallery, Nottingham Trent University, from 21 January 2023. 

The exhibition will be Lewisohn’s first UK solo exhibition outside of London and follows his critically acclaimed exhibition The Thousand Year Kingdom at the Saatchi Gallery and group exhibition Untitled at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, both in 2021.  As a curator, Lewisohn produced the landmark Street Art exhibition at Tate Modern in 2008, and more recently the Dub London project at the Museum of London.  He is currently the Curator of Site Design at Southbank Centre, London. 

Lewisohn’s work uses drawing as the starting point for a practice that encompasses woodblock and lino prints, publications, performances, moving images, sound, VR experience, and the written word.

Over the past decade he has been researching and drawing objects relating to ancient African and Mesopotamian civilizations within museum collections, including the Benin Bronzes, which have become a touchstone in the discussion around global museums’ restitution of looted heritage.

In his prints Lewisohn mixes his depictions of works from ancient civilizations with symbols of contemporary British youth culture, such as sound system culture, dancehall, drill music and urban landscapes, to explore current social, ethical, and political issues. The mix of African, Jamaican and British histories, locations, myths, and hidden stories is central to Lewisohn’s work.

The exhibition’s title is a fusion of two words that offer further insight into Lewisohn’s practice and preoccupations. During the pandemic, Lewisohn took lessons in Patois – the English-based creole language spoken throughout Jamaica – from academic and poet, Joan Hutchison.  He is interested in the migration of Patois back to the UK through its use in reggae and dancehall lyrics, and its integration into the slang of young urban Britain.  Banton is the Jamaican word for storyteller.  Combining these words highlights Lewisohn’s concern with Jamaican heritage from both a personal and historical perspective, and his desire to explore its ongoing influence on modern-day British culture.

The exhibition will present a range of large and small-scale works, some not exhibited before. It will include works from his acclaimed book The Marduk Prophecy – shown alongside a newly commissioned publication, and an interactive virtual space that explores Lewisohn’s fascination with mixing the handmade – in this case his woodblock prints – with digital technology. 

To accompany the exhibition Bonington Gallery will publish a new compilation of poetry by the artist.   ‘Office Poems’ features a selection of poems exploring the humour and mundanity of office life.  Each poem will be published in English and Patois, with translations by Joan Hutchinson. 

Bonington Gallery is part of Curated & Created, NTU’s extra-curricular and public arts programme.