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David/Dave Lewis

Born, 1962

Dave Lewis is one of the most original, accomplished and creative of the crop of Black British photographers to emerge during the 1980s. Having gained a BA (Hons) in Film and Photographic Arts from PCL (the Polytechnic of Central London) in 1985, Lewis has gone on to establish himself as a practitioner whose work consistently demands to be taken seriously.

Central to Lewis’ concerns are questions of identity, perception, society and the ways in which such things are in turn informed by history and historical factors. His work of the mid 1980s was nothing short of astonishing, in its ability to present complex narratives in deceptively simple, but nevertheless visually arresting, ways. His portraiture aside, Lewis’ work eschewed documentary photography, choosing instead to create and present photographs that were studiously constructed. In some ways, Lewis’ ambivalence about employing supposedly straightforward documentary techniques owed much to an ambivalence, if not an out and out rejection, of the workings of the documentary photograph. Photographers such as David A. Bailey, and filmmakers such as the Black Audio Film Collective questioned what was widely regarded as the certainty of the documentary photograph. In some quarters – most notably, Black photographers from the US and elsewhere in the world - the documentary photograph had come to exist as a righteous barometer of Black disadvantage and Black activism. In other quarters – most notably, the mainstream news media, the documentary photograph that took Black people as its subject exuded similar notions of truthfulness and certainty. Ultimately however, the mood of questioning that the 1980s gave rise to, regarded such images with a new found scepticism. In short, the notions of truth, accuracy, and reality that documentary photographs claimed were no more than illusions, charades, or complicated deceits.

In stepped Dave Lewis, arguing that complicated issues or conditions could not be addressed or symbolised by single snapshot images, no matter how powerful or sentimental such images might be, or how much pathos or outrage they solicited. With such images being in many ways ultimately ambiguous, and fundamentally problematic, what was needed instead, were lens-based images that unambiguously declared themselves to be the antithesis of the documentary photograph. Lewis’ genius lay in his ability to put before the viewer critical appraisals of race, racism, and representation that fundamentally avoided the pitfalls of the documentary photograph, even as they drove home the urgency of their messages.


In one photograph, Lewis commented on legacies of colonialism and the role of the missionary in Africa by depicting a soldier, in battle fatigues, standing close to a man of the cloth. The men were photographed close up, at waist height. Both were symbolic of the bloody and destructive forces of colonial conquest and subjugation to which the continent had been subjected. But Lewis brilliantly obliged us to look deeper at the roles of both soldier and chaplain by placing a pistol in the hand of the missionary and a bible in the hand of the soldier. Such a work was compelling, fresh and dynamic and marked Lewis out as being a particularly intelligent image-maker, who at the time was still in his early twenties.

Attempts to bring clarity to our understandings of Africa’s misery lay behind another of Lewis’ photographs. Africa was presented as a chessboard, complete with chess pieces playing out their deadly battle. In so doing, Lewis graphically emphasised the ways in which the continent existed as a site of proxy, or remote wars for supremacy and influence by the then world superpowers. Battles in which Africans themselves took the form of pawns as well as more senior military figures, fighting, dying, and wreaking havoc at the behest of, and ultimately for the benefit of, colonial and neo colonial powers in countries far away from the killing fields of Africa.

Lewis was responsible for one of the most compelling commentaries on the work of American photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose images of Black males had generated so much notoriety and controversy. Mapplethorpe’s work was frequently charged with giving renewed platforms to the basest stereotypes of Black men’s sexuality and physique. Simultaneously of course, there were those who countered that Mapplethorpe was in fact attempting to subvert, expose or critique such stereotypes. In steps Dave Lewis, with a wide-ranging intervention that wove a variety of narratives into then ongoing debates about the validity or otherwise of Mapplethorpe’s work. He photographed himself as a gallery attendant, sitting in close proximity to a selection of Mapplethorpe’s images. Elsewhere in Lewis’ frame, a gallery visitor – a white woman – was looking at the photographs.

In this brilliant composition, Lewis introduced himself and obliged us to consider the ways in which Mapplethorpe’s photographs impacted on Black men such as himself, thereby taking debates about Mapplethorpe’s work out of the realm of the abstract or the notional and positing it instead in the very real here and now of Lewis’ life and the Lewis’ society. Concurrent of course were notions of presence and absence, as they related to Black people and the art gallery/museum.

Since the creation of this astonishing body of work, Lewis has continued to be a singularly important and original image-maker whose work continues to be exhibited and appreciated.

One of his latest bodies of work, Field Work was “inspired by the idea of the artist as a ‘stranger’ who visits a place or site to gather first-hand evidence as research. Lewis has explored the New Forest in Hampshire and Newtown in mid-Wales for Field Work. Both of theses places are linked by their rural locations and also by their cultural differences to Lewis’ hometown of London. By analyzing and contrasting these areas, interviewing residents and documenting events such as local festivals and carnivals, Lewis examines the role of the individual within society and how that individual identifies themselves with a place.”

The project, a co-commission for Autograph ABP, ArtSway, and Oriel Davies Gallery, was exhibited at ArtSway early in 2010 and at Oriel Davies Gallery later that year.

Lewis’ “exhibitions and screenings include: Photo-ID Norwich Forum, 2009; Hybridity, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts 2008; Anywhere but Here, Southwark Gallery, 2008; AfterShock, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, 2007. Dave Lewis lives and works in London and is currently Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, Goldsmiths, University of London.”

Both quotes from www.e-flux.com/shows/view/7701 [5/2/10]

Several of Lewis’ photographs appear in Gen Doy’s book, Black Visual Culture, I.B. Tauris, 2000.

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