Dylan Lewis is an established South African artist well-known for his monumental bronze sculptures of African wildlife. More recently his work has become darker, showing traces of a highly personal journey into the human psyche and its primal drives. These works explore human myth through the hybridisation and fragmentation of sculptural form. Coupled with this development in his recent work is the realisation of a beautiful large-scale sculpture garden just outside Stellenbosch.
JT: Dylan first I want to talk about your themes and recent formal developments in your work. Then I would like to briefly discuss the development, form and function of the sculpture garden. I think as an artist you are mostly known for the big cat series. Did you make these works purely out of a formal fascination or were there other forces at play?
DL: I love the big cats both as living beings and as forms. On a psychological level the cats always represent something raw, even free to me. The possibility of violence, aggression and even of sexuality in the symbolism of the big cat was a vehicle through which I could explore that underlying part of myself without having any straightforward attachment to it. Today I am ready to be more open. This is why I have turned to exploring the human form and mythology.
JT: So with the human figures you are more interested in their darker, mythological possibilities – as archaic signs and symbols? How and why did this shift come about?
DL: My primary passion and source of inspiration is always the wilderness – the wild places where I grew up and still spend much of my time. My initial youthful response to that attraction was to draw and sculpt the animals I saw there, because they were the things that I loved and connected with most. As my own ideas about the world and my place therein became more complex, I became more interested in exploring the ‘wilderness’ as a symbol of personal freedom, the animal, and all that is hidden in my unconscious. That is why I have turned to the human form and abstraction such as the monumental animal fragments.
JT: Let us talk a bit about the human figures that you have begun to sculpt lately. They are quite a departure from your previous works.
DL: I am interested in the human body as a surface on which to explore emotion, tension and concept, rather than narrowly focusing on the face (which for me is too easy). In some of the new works I integrated aspect of animal into the human form to defamiliarise it, to make something else momentarily appear through – or as part of – the human form. For me the human body is an expression of our animal-like state in the world, of our givingness as a species if you like.
Artwork: Black Wildebeest Skull Masked Male Figure (Male Trans-Figure II)
JT: You hide the faces of the figures behind animals mask often or avoid them completely. What is the reason for this?
DL: For me the human face represents the spoken and written word, intellect and control. The body is older and it is more visceral – a constant reminder of our past as a species that is part of and ultimately belongs in the world. The animal skull-mask represents my ritualistic engagement with the story of the ‘wildness’ and what it might symbolise today.
JT: There seems to be a specific narrative at stake in the placement of the different forms throughout the sculpture park?
DL: With the sculpture garden I want to establish something like a timeline in my sculpture to date. I divided the garden into distinct spaces featuring early bird imagery, the African animal imagery, the cat imagery, the early human form, the human torso, fragmented animal forms, monumental fragments and the recent work respectively. These distinct forms are all stories associated with different thinking processes, artistic interests and experiences in my life thus far. For example, the section containing most of the female figures is associated to a personal moment of self-reflection and development regarding the human form and its place in my art, spirituality and life.
Artwork: Crouching Male Figure wearing Waterbuck Skull Mask (Male Trans-Figure IX)
JT: How does the landscape frame the work?
DL: The system of pathways that run through the garden allow the visitor to either enter the garden randomly, or experience it as a specific narrative journey. On an obvious level the placement of the sculptures in the garden relates to the viewer’s physical approach to the sculpture and its context. For example, in one area I placed an upright vertical angel-like figure, to create a moment of quiet and stability in the landscape. There is nature, and then there is what I have made to resemble nature – the sculpture garden. Together this now forms a single continuum, one with its own problems and possibilities, freedoms, pleasures and constraints.
Dr Johan Thom (b1976, Johannesburg) is an academic, artist and curator who lectures Fine Art at the University of Pretoria. This interview is an edited transcript of a longer interview with Dylan Lewis conducted in
Visits to the Dylan Lewis Sculpture Garden are by appointment Tuesdays to Saturdays. To make a booking contact firstname.lastname@example.org.