Interview: PhenomenaLewis


Lewis Derogene, artistically known as PhenomenaLewis


1) Could you introduce yourself? When did you have experience with making or consuming art? When did you start seeing yourself as an artist? Where did you go to school?


My name is Lewis Derogene and my artist name is PhenomenaLewis. I'm a multimedia artist and right now my main medium of focus is digital photography. I'm a Haitian born artist who is currently based in both CT and NY.


I came to experience art at a very young age back in Haiti. My mom's side of the family are all visual artists of some sort. My mom was a fashion designer back home, my uncles were painters, sculptors and musicians, so I've always been around art. I didn't start to create and take my creations seriously until I was in high school. Everyone around me was already thinking about their future and all I wanted to do was create art. So, from there I decided to stick with my passion and pursue it by going for my BFA in Fine Arts from the School of Visual Arts.


2) How would you describe your art practice? Are you a conceptualist or a formalist? Does your art as a contemporary practice reference or get inspiration from modernist and pre-modernist artists and ideas? What is the core idea that drives your art from photography to sculpture to poems to performance?


I wouldn't narrow my practice down to a single form because it will vary based on the concept idea. Of course right now that I'm solely focusing on digital photography, my art practice is just that, photography. I think myself to be a little bit of both, conceptualist and formalist. I usually get inspired by other contemporary photographers, not your traditional photographer though. I'm into the style of photo manipulation and creating a painting with a photograph rather than just capturing a moment. My main and constant source of inspiration will forever be Rembrandt. What drives art between my many different mediums is actually my poetry. I have published a few on my website, but that's such a small increment of what I've actually written. Based on the subject or feeling behind the poem, I'll decide which medium best fits it. However, COVID has limited me to photography, but I'm excited to start creating sculptures again, drawings, art installations, videos and more performances.


"Havoc" by Lewis Derogene, artistically known as PhenomenaLewis, Digital Photography, 2021.


3) How do your recent works in photography in the form of self portraits deal with the issue of race and the Black Lives Matter movement? In my view, your use of the color black as a skin tone by manipulating light and form expresses a kind of beauty that is majestic, mysterious, and magical. In addition to the imagery of self empowerment and black power and beauty, how do your self portraits subvert racism? How do they attack the binary opposition between the whites and colored people establishing the racial boundaries? Are your self portraits like a mirror, allowing a black person to see themselves and possibly a white person to see themselves in the images as well?


My current self portrait projects are not about the Black Lives Matter movement. They do have to do with race because I'm highlighting myself, a dark skinned black woman in her own space, but it's mainly about being present, existing within a space as myself. It's trying to relearn who I am as a person and what it means to be a person or human. The photographs and most of my work have to do with the state of being human, like what goes on in your mind when you're exposed to certain topics, subjects, etc. Most of them are my representation of having pent up anger and frustration that I feel I can't fully release, that's why I darken my skin tone even more than it already is (I'm already dark skinned) to represent the inner anger and frustration that I try to hide, but can't fully hide surrounded by this sort of illusionistic beauty whether dark or light, just beauty. I think it's how a lot of us are dealing with social issues, we're angry, but we don't know how to release that anger and we try not to fully put ourselves in that place of constant anger which is why we try to create a place whether in real life or in our minds that's beautiful and aesthetically pleasing that calms us and holds us in place.


Thank you for describing my work in those words, that means a lot. My work does undermine racism a little because I'm beautifying dark skin, mine for now because Covid has me a little scared to be too close to others to photograph, but that will soon change, hopefully. Back to the topic, I'm beautifying dark skin because it's shunned, it's disregarded, it's always being bullied and it's really valuable, beyond earthly beauty, and incomparable.


I haven't really put it in mind to have my photographs be like a mirror, but I have found that a few people reached out to me saying thank you for sharing my work because it's empowering to them, by them I mean dark skinned women.


"Preoccupied Spirits" by Lewis Derogene, artistically known as PhenomenaLewis, Digital Photography, 2019.


4) Do you see a link between your ghostly figures in the Portraits series with the “Hauntology” of Jacques Derrida, in which the philosopher argued that we remember with nostalgia the past that never existed, thereby bringing into existence a ghost that carries secrets that are unspeakable and taboo in the words that are available to us? How does Trump’s message of “Make America Great Again” remember America’s past with nostalgia and complete dismissal of her problems with genocide, slavery, and racism?


The only link that I see in comparison to Jacques Derrida's "Hauntology," is the idea of it appearing visually in my work, besides I'm not creating a ghostly figure to represent a nostalgic past, just a person in their present time. I can see why you referenced it, my photographs do carry a ghostly appearance, but it doesn't relate in any way to the "Hauntology."


You pretty much answered your own question within your question of how trump uses MAGA as a nostalgia to the pass while dismissing genocide, racism, slavery, and more. It's just that, a dismissal.


5) What is your poem titled “Beauty Soul Sister” (2016) about? What is the ‘system of degradation?’ And what do you mean by the words, ‘Earning the keep... Of another man’s greed?’ How do your poems relate to your other works?


My 2016 poem is titled Beautiful Soul Sister not "beauty soul sister." This poem is about a beautiful soul sister, a beautiful Black woman who needs to recognize her worth. I chose to write "system of degradation," because Black women are so conditioned to devalue themselves, degrade themselves and it's all part of this system that we live in, from products that are still on the shelves today worldwide wanting dark skin women to bleach their skin, colorism in the workplace, fight for love, fight for being seen and being heard. "Earning to keep ... of another man's greed ... to lust after the ephemeral taste of want," is about trying to be accepted by others who don't really care about us, Black women. It's about other's acceptance and not self-acceptance which in the end causes her to lose herself, that's why the following line says "another soul sister lost."


My poems are the foundation for my other works, that's how they relate.


"La Occultation" by Lewis Derogene, artistically known as PhenomenaLewis, Mixed Media, 2017.


6) Who does your work, titled “La Occultation,” represent? Who is the Big Brother who hides the truth and mass controls people? If there is no one person who is the Big Brother, then is your image of the Big Brother really about the generic idea (aka signified) rather than just a word (aka signifier)? In other words, is the image of the Big Brother being depicted in your work an archetype or a stereotype, rather than a specific person?


"La Occultation" is not of a specific person, it's the idea and singular representation of people in power who abuse that power over everyone.


Everyone, at least I hope everyone, should know what Big Brother represents, not what it means. Big Brother is the concept of those who rule, those in power like the government or if you've read George Orwell's 1984, you should know or have a pretty good idea of it.


7) How does your work relate to spirituality? Why do you say that the ancestors weep in their grave? How does spirituality open doors to the possibility of healing? How are healing and bringing social and historical justice tied together?


My work is spiritual in process and presentation. You give me no reference to when I've said, if you're quoting me, that my ancestors weep in their grave, so I can't answer that, I've said and created a lot of things. Depending on the subject matter of that spirituality, it can bring healing if it's expressing hurt or pain and shows a way of coping, or dealing with.


I laughed a little at this question because you're misinterpreting my saying that I use spiritual, sociological and political elements in my work as me saying that they tie in together. No, what I mean by that is I'll take part of them to create my piece, so I guess my artworks are how they tie in together. Also, I'm sure that there are many different ways to answer how all three tie in together based on an individual person, I don't think there's a singular answer for that.


8) Could you tell us more about the work titled, “Preoccupied Spirits?” How does the camera capture the ghostly images?


"Preoccupied Spirits," was my 4th year thesis back in the School of Visual Arts (SVA). I wanted to originally create a short film, but then I realized that the idea I had would better be represented as a photograph instead. I wanted to show the separation of the mind and body because sometimes they're not on the same page. Your mind can say something different than what your body is doing, for example, when you're in the shower and your arms and doing the motion of washing your armpits and your mind isn't thinking "arm, wash those pits," instead it's thinking about your existence in four years and I wanted to find a way to visually represent that without it being too clear and on the nose.


How I managed to capture my models' movements was by setting my camera to a very low shutter speed and carefully directing the models so that certain poses they hold may appear still while the other motions can overlay on top of the still motions blurred.


9) What do you think about the concept of post humanism? By breaking the binary oppositions of gender and race, does it avail an alternative solution to the logic of domination which justifies the “winner” taking everything from the “loser?” Do you feel that something is lost with the post humanism’s position that there is nothing special about humans versus nature, and this avails a new perception of equality in which people, machines, and nature can co-exist together? Does bringing about historical justice entail a kind of penalty or revenge on the identity that was dominant (white and/or males), or would that open new wounds rather than healing old wounds?


Post humanism is something that I have in the back of my mind almost all of the time. It's frightening and also very intriguing at the same time to think that one day, maybe soon, who knows, we'll experience the many theories there are of post humanity whether it's robots ruling over us or zombies or us being half machine half man.


What kind of question is this?! Lol, I don't know how to answer this only because there are so many different forms of post-humanity scenarios. There are some where humans, nature, and human creation can co-exist without a glitch and there are some where they all fight one another which is not much different than how we're living right now. I'm saying that because we rely so much on technology that when it fails us, we lose a lot, and we're also killing nature so much so that karma is letting nature's ghost kill us.


First of all, there was no justice in history at all. No justice has been served for anyone, not even for white people. What they would consider justice is not at all, especially since they were never in a position of being put in the wrong since they would dominate, conquer, steal, murder, and worse for what they have. Black, Asians, Hispanics, other races and nationalities, none have received any justice for what they've been put through in history, so there is no historical justice. Because of this, there will be a point in life that may become history, that what's been done wrong, will be avenged and there's no wounds to talk about except for those who have been done wrong, Blacks being enslaved, Blacks all over the world, middle Eastern people, Hispanics of Latin and Central America, Asians who have been wrongfully accused, abused, and mistreated.


"Wreak" by Lewis Derogene, artistically known as PhenomenaLewis, Digital Photography, 2021.


10) What are your plans for the future? In what new directions do you want to steer your art practice?


If I do have a plan for the future, I don't want to share it so I don't say it away that it may never exist. However, I will be vigilant and steadfast in whatever I plan and whatever obstacles I face. Since I already consider and am a multimedia artist, I will try to and will continue to be a multimedia artist.

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