DYLAN LEWIS

Born in  1964, Johannesburg

EDUCATION
1982     Studied art at the Cape Technicon, Cape Town.
1989     Studied painting under Ryno Swart at the Ruth Prowse School of Art, Cape Town.

ABOUT THE ARTIST
Dylan Lewis is a South African artist who has emerged as one of the foremost figures in contemporary sculpture. Lewis has focused chiefly on the cat as his subject and has created an unrivalled collection on this theme - ranking as one of the most important collections of animal sculpture to come out of Africa. He has extended his artistic talents to the human form, especially its relationship with nature, and has had equal success as with his animals.

Nurtured by a family of artists and inspired by his mother and grandmother, Dylan Lewis first became a painter and it was only after the death of his father, well known sculptor Robin Lewis that he started to explore sculpture.

His sculptures touch the element, the pristine and the world of legend and enchantment. Lewis´s empathy with nature and its living forms is evident in his ability to powerfully convey the essence of predators & prey, and the environment in which we all exist.

Lewis´s primary inspiration is wilderness. At one level his bronze sculptures celebrate the power and movement of Africa´s life forms; at another the textures he creates speak of the continent´s primeval, rugged landscapes and their ancient rhythms. He works intensively from life, filling books with sketches, notes and drawings. By referring to these in the solitude of his studio, he is able to reproduce the subject´s physical form while exploring their more abstract, deeper meaning.

Lewis´s work features in private collections throughout the UK, Continental Europe, United States and Australia, and he is one of only a handful of living artists to have had more than one solo auction with Christie´s in London.

DYLAN LEWIS CAT EXHIBITION INFORMATION
South African artist Dylan Lewis is widely regarded as one of the world’s foremost sculptors of the animal form. Over the past 15 years he has exhibited extensively, both in South Africa and around the world, and he is one of only a handful of living artists to have had a solo auction at prestigious international auction house Christie’s of London. This recent event was an overwhelming success and put the artist very firmly on the global art world’s centre stage.

Now Lewis brings a series of 23 dramatic animal works to and around his home town of Stellenbosch, a well-conserved historical gem in the heart of the Cape Winelands that dates back to the 17th century. The introduction of these animal forms into the town is an evocative reminder of an often overlooked aspect of this cultural centre’s natural history. For Lewis, it is also an exciting opportunity to juxtapose the notions of the wild animal and civilized human, and to hint at his interest in the vestiges of original wildness that humans still carry in our psyches.

At the same time, the Shapeshifting exhibition at the town’s Rupert Museum traces this sculptor’s progression from animal forms to the human figure and the interface between animal, human and wilderness.
With a passion for wilderness and a love of being outdoors, alone, in nature, it’s fitting that Dylan Lewis chose to make his home at the foot of the magnificent mountain ranges surrounding the beautiful Cape village of Stellenbosch. Held by the Simonsberg, Stellenbosch, Helderberg and Jonkershoek mountains, the cradled valley and the town remain closely connected to nature and these dramatic Mountain Fynbos-covered peaks that reach up to 1600 metres dominate the horizon from almost any vantage point. It is these expansive mountains that are the wellspring of Lewis’s inspiration, and he spends long days and nights walking their rugged slopes and admiring their sculptural rock formations, overhangs, caves and cliff faces. 

So lush and welcoming is the valley that it has been home to man for around 700 000 years; stone implements found here prove its archeological significance beyond doubt. When walking in the mountains, Lewis is mindful of this early history and of mankind’s primitive ancestors. The area remained home to indigenous people for centuries, and when the first Dutch settlers arrived in the 17th century, the valley and the mountains were inhabited by Khoi people who used the area as seasonal grazing for their large herds of livestock. At the time, the mountains and valley were mainly dense bush (known as Renosterbos, named after the prolific rhinoceros the plant resembles and which fed on it) and also home to many species of dangerous wild animals, including rhinoceros, lion, buffalo, cheetah and leopard. In particular, Lewis is fascinated by the bond that the early inhabitants had with their environment, with the earth, and with the wild animals that shared their home: the totemic significance of certain animals, and the indissoluble original link between man, animal and habitat.

In this area, that link first came under threat in 1679 when then Commander of the Cape Colony Simon van der Stel made a tour of inspection of the surrounding mountains and immediately saw the agricultural potential of the valley, particularly as wine farming land. In order to escape the wild animals, which he referred to as “ferocious, wild beasts”, he first set up camp on a small island in the Eerste River, the “first” river beyond the bounds of the established at the Cape of Good Hope, and named the area in his own honour.  The settlers quickly took over the Khoi grazing grounds and even their livestock, and set about removing the threat of wild animals. It is said that the first meat eaten by these Dutch settlers was rhino meat, and it is recorded that one family trapped and killed over 200 leopards.

Development and civilization was rapid. The rough frontier town with simple “longhouses” quickly grew and lost its hard edge as additional new buildings matched the growing wealth of the area. Today, Stellenbosch is undoubtedly among the finest cultural jewels of the Cape, if not the country. Everywhere, there’s a palpable sense of the leafy town’s past, from the many Cape Dutch buildings to the neo-Gothic Moederkerk, to the Braak and to the many fine examples of Georgian, Victorian and Deco architecture. There are 12 distinct architectural styles in Stellenbosch, and the variety of gables, arched gateways, shuttered French windows and thatched roofs tell the stories of its successive inhabitants, from as far back as that first encampment by Van der Stel.

However, although the town may be rich in reminders of its many historical periods, what are not as well remembered are its very earliest natural and wild inhabitants, many of which have vanished without a trace. All that now remains of the “ferocious, wild beasts” are the leopard which still lives in the surrounding mountains, in vastly depleted numbers. It is to pay homage to these now extinct creatures and to remind us of the pristine wilderness that once was their  and our early ancestor’s shared home that Lewis returns a selection of them to their original habitat, juxtaposing their great forms and spirits ( now captured in bronze) with the urban markers of our civilization.

The tension created by the sculptures’ placement is at times intriguing, and at others, poignant. On Stellenbosch’s Braak (“fallow field”, left uncultivated since a fire in Van der Stel’s time so as to provide an open area for festivals and fairs and now the “heart” of the Stellenbosch community) is the massive, hulking White Rhinoceros, set in proximity to the historic Kruithuis or “powder house” which stored the ammunitions that most probably eliminated these once prolific beasts from the area. Stalking Cheetah hunts menacingly in front of the Theological Seminary – on the very spot where Van der Stel set up the original island camp for protection against exactly such a palpable threat, and is a good example of the way that Lewis employs the wild animal, and most prolifically the large predators, as metaphors for wilderness to evoke a sense of untamed freedom. Buffalo Bull Pair conjures the magnitude of earth and the textures of the landscape these weighty beasts inhabit, right in front of another iconic marker of colonization: the Moederkerk. And at the Sasol Art Museum are Striding Fragment and Running Fragment, which function as warnings of not only the external consequences of failing to respect the environment, but also as psychic warnings of what happens to humans when we lose touch with the wild, instinctive aspects of our own nature. These Fragments are powerful and unsettling statements about the destruction of natural habitats, vital markers of Lewis’s development as an artist and important precursors of his recent exploration of the interface between wilderness and human and animal forms, an exhibition of which is on view at The Rupert Museum, running concurrently for a period with the Outdoor Sculpture Tour.

It is this Shapeshifting exhibition that is the core of the Dylan Lewis in Stellenbosch initiative, as it contextualizes all of his work and elucidates the new direction Lewis has taken after focusing on the animal form for the past 15 years. This carefully selected series of non-chronological works and installations traces and illustrates the threads underlying Lewis’s progression from wilderness, to animal, to fragmented animal forms, to the human/animal interface embodied in his latest figure work.

The sculptor’s recent exploration of the human form is not the radical shift in focus it may appear to be. Instead, this shift in subject matter is really a natural progression of Lewis’s artistic journey and personal philosophy, and the exhibition outlines every step towards this development. Starting with his primary inspiration of wilderness, Shapeshifting moves through such touch-stones en route to the human figure as the artist’s use of the wild animal as metaphor, his comment to working from life, his first nascent departure from realism into the arena of myth,  the progressive elevation of the animal towards human stature, his embrace of the vertical axis (associated with human representation as opposed to the vertical that traditionally is used for animal representation), his evocation of presence by absence and the subsequent emergence of the human figure: arguably one of the most important aesthetic traditions in Western culture. It is now Lewis’s focus to integrate human, animal and wilderness and explore the interface between human and animal in his work, and in a way, this idea is similarly in the placement of the animal sculptures within the bustling urban centre.

Of great importance to Lewis is the notion that there may be painful and psychological and spiritual, as well as physical, consequences of the wanton destruction of the environment; that the loss of wilderness entails the loss of humankind’s spiritual home as much as it does the depletion of natural habitats. This outdoor exhibition is a tangible reminder of the wild animals that once freely roamed the area, and offers powerful comment on the importance of conserving wilderness areas before there is even greater loss: one posed ton the human psyche. In returning these now extinct “ferocious, wild beasts” to their original home, Lewis suggests we all reconsider our relationship with our natural environment, and perhaps entertain the notion that our own sustainable existence may be infinitely more fragile than we like to imagine.