“The worst he can say is no.”
This was my thought when I decided to email the incredible international photographer and creative head of Noire3000 Studios, James C. Lewis. To be honest, the worst is actually getting no response at all, which made me initially apprehensive. However, I decided to stop being a chicken and send the email, and surprisingly, I got a response!
I had initially communicated that I would be asking a few questions about his Orishas series(Gods and Goddesses of Nigeria and Benin), but after carrying out more research on the man and his art, I was so fascinated that I ended up emailing almost twenty questions that included questions on his other works! So cheeky I know, but I sent it anyway and hoped for the best.
Surprisingly, Mr Lewis scheduled a time to discuss his work in depth and I was beyond thrilled! After the initial excitement, my next worry was not asking silly or repetitive questions. I think I managed it well; and I was right! James C. Lewis is a passionate and creative genius whose work speaks to many and has time and time again inspired others to see the world around them with a new lens and seek an inner consciousness that’s both illuminating as it’s thought provoking.
S: Please tell the readers about yourself and your work.
JCL: My name is James Cornelius Lewis, I’m from Statesboro Georgia which is in the south of the United States. I graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta in 1998, and I have a Bachelor’s degree in Visual Communications with a concentration on Illustration. I worked in advertising and marketing for 10 years before I started my company in 2008. I’m a visual artist, so a lot of my pieces incorporates my artistry. So when people saw my Orishas series, a lot of them said the characters look like superheroes because of the effects I used to showcase their different powers. I’m a very creative individual, so all of the outfits, styling and post production editing was done by me.
S: Have you always known you wanted to be an artist?
JCL: Yes, I started drawing when I was 2 years old, before I could even read or write. My mother noticed my talent because I used to always draw on books, so instead, she got me a pad. So I was drawing on pads and loose pieces of paper and things like that. Unbeknownst to me, my mother kept all of it and when I graduated from high school, she presented me with a box, and it had all of my drawings from when I was little. I hadn’t even known that she had kept them. Now, when I see little kids that have a niche for doing something and their parents complain that they are always scribbling, it’s like they have a talent and it needs to be cultivated.
S: What inspired you to depict the Yoruba Orishas?
JCL: On my mother’s father’s side, we’re Yoruba and because of that, there are some things I can tap into by learning more about my heritage on that side. I didn’t know about the Orishas before 2012 when I started researching it and was stunned. I had never heard of them, and I started researching more and wanted to depict them in human form because I hadn’t seen it done well. I had seen attempts online to capture them in human form, but it didn’t look polished. So I captured them in the way I did to showcase their powers and abilities, giving them the appearance of the description that you typically read about them. The one thing I did that most people don’t do is show their faces because majority of the time they have cow shells on their face, but I decided to show their face instead of covering it. Once I did, Buzzfeed wrote an article that came out 2 weeks after they had contacted me. I woke up one morning and I had an inbox full of messages filled with people exclaiming that I was on Buzzfeed. And from there, a couple of other sites and blogs wrote about me and not too long after that, I was contacted by Creative Galleries in London inviting me to come over to showcase my Orisha series, and it went from there.
S: What was the casting process like to get the “perfect” models?
JCL: Basically, I had particular models that I had worked with that I felt could embody the characters, so I contacted them directly. I didn’t do a casting. I’m a fashion photographer so I work with a lot of modelling agencies, and have access to a lot of models so it was easy to select the models. I knew how I wanted each one of them to look as the character, therefore it was very customised.
S: Would you say you already had the inspiration for the depiction of the characters, or did the models inspire the depiction?
JCL: The models somewhat inspired the look, and I already had an idea in mind, so I styled them accordingly to that, but I allowed the persona of certain models give more life to the character because I allowed them to be who they were. Like the young lady that played Oba, I styled her and directed some of her poses, but as we went along, she gave it her own feel, and it was the same with Oya and most of the other characters. They embodied the characters so well, it was like I dressed them and they brought it to life.
S: Have you been to Nigeria yet?
JCL: No, I have never. I’ll possibly go in the near future though.
S: Your project on the Icons Of The Bible is captivating! What inspired it? And what message, if any did you hope to relay through the imagery? It is obviously different from the mainstream characterizations of Bible characters as White.
JCL: I’m very pro Black which is obvious from my work, and that’s not to say I’m anti-white but I believe that we should learn to celebrate our culture more than we do and we don’t celebrate it because we don’t know. (We) as American Blacks, unlike those that that are from Africa, don’t really have a “rooted culture” because we were uprooted and brought to the Americas. So we don’t have anything that we can necessarily refer back to. So we can say we came from Africa, but we don’t know exactly where in Africa we came from. Well in my case, I know where I came from because from my great grand father’s side, they came over to the States at the turn of the century from Nigeria to South Carolina and Statesboro. So I have that knowledge from my mother’s father’ side, but from my other sides, I don’t know the makeup of who I am from those sides. So, I think it’s important that we understand and know who we are. I present the work in a way that people are captivated and it inspires or makes you want to go and read up on the characters.
In regards to the Icons of the Bible, I was very sick of the whitewashing of everything and how everything is portrayed from a white man’s perspective. A saying goes- ‘history is told by the person that writes it’, so you could be in the middle of a war and losing, but if you’re writing it, you can say you won. There’s always a story to be told, so I’m telling our story. I’m telling the story of Black people, I’m telling the story of my African ancestry and lineage, I’m telling the story that they don’t want us to see. I’m giving them the visuals that for so long they’ve lied to us to say that it was something else. So I’m just taking a different creative spin on it. I’m giving the world what I see and what I’m inspired by. And I’m inspired by the beauty of our culture, the beauty of blackness, the beauty of our African ancestries. So those are the things that inspire me to creatively produce the works I do.
S: Your work is very passionate. Who were the role models that inspired you while growing up?
JCL: Many people inspired me but the ones who inspired me directly was my father. He wasn’t a professional photographer but just took a lot of pictures at family events, and seeing him doing that, made me want to take pictures. My family loved to be photographed, so looking back through family albums, I had pictures of my family all the way back to the 1900s. So it was just fascinating to see the depictions and see people in the family that I look like. Like how the genes is passed down is so strong through history. I saw a picture of my great grandfather, and I looked just like him and that’s fascinating.
Another person that inspires me is my mum. My mum was very pro Black as well, although not as militant as I am! She participated in the civil rights movement. She was one of the young people during that time, and a member of the SEOC and NWACP. She participated in the sit ins and a lot of the marches in the South. So to hear first hand accounts from your parents of the struggles that they went through, like there was a point in time when they had to drink out of the coloured people water fountain and couldn’t go into certain restaurants and had to go round the back, ride at the back of a bus, and so many things that we enjoy today that they didn’t have. She also told me the pros and cons of things, like how desegregation hurt Black people more so than it helped us because before desegregation, we had our own businesses, we had our own insurance companies, our own lawyers, doctors, car dealerships, and everything else White people had because we couldn’t go to them, so we had our own. Now we practically have nothing in the States. So it’s like you’re dependent upon another people that don’t even look at you as equal and are still not going to give you the best of the best because they’ll find a loophole for them to have and for you not to have. So a lot of those things inspired me to continue to tell the stories and continue to fight against social and racial injustices. I feel like I could talk to you until I’m blue in the face, but if I show you a picture, it will come across without me saying a word because you know exactly what I’m saying with all of the imagery that you see.
So my parents were my biggest inspirations outside of various people in life and other photographers that inspired me such as James Van Der Zee who was one of the premier photographers of the Harlem renaissance in the 1930s in New York. Also, Gordon Parks who was one of the first Black photographers for Life magazine back in the 1940s and later went on to produce Shaft in the 1970s; and Dave Lachapelle who photographed Tupac Shakur in the bath tub with all the gold over him, Lil Kim, madonna and so many other entertainment artists of the 90s.
S: What challenges or obstacles have you faced in your industry?
JCL: With being a Black artist, a lot of the time, your work is relegated as being a “Black artist” and I never liked that title. I’m an artist, I’m a professional photographer. Being Black has nothing to do with it. If I’m good at what I do, then I’m good. If you say a White photographer is good, you just say he’s a photographer, you don’t say that’s a good White photographer. So that’s one of the things I often correct people on.
In regards to obstacles, I’ve faced obstacles where people don’t understanding my work. And because they don’t understand, they immediately start to criticize or take a stance against it. But I look at it this way- if it’s caused you to become uncomfortable, then my point has been achieved because I want it to open dialogue. I want it to get people to start talking. But none of that sets me back because I believe God put me here for a particular reason to get a particular message out, and whether you like it or not it’s not my concern. I’m here to create artwork.
S: What advice would you give a young person starting out or trying to pursue a creative career?
JCL: The first thing I’ll say is be true to yourself. Like they say, be careful of who you try to pretend to be because you might forget who you truly are. The only way I feel an artist can truly express who they are is to get outside of other people’s opinions. If you’re locked into thinking of what other people would think of you or what they might say, you’ll never fully reach the Zenith of your creativity. If you feel there’s a message you need to say, get it out because that’s your inner truth.
The final thing I’ll say is that there’s no such thing as failure. There’s only choices that we make in life. We can choose to succeed, or we can choose to let obstacles obstruct our way.
James C. Lewis is no ordinary photographer or visual artist. His work breathes life into our current existence in regards to what it is to be Black and fully represented in truth and valour.
I hope the interview has enlightened you on the man behind the imagery and has revealed the passion and drive behind his artistry.
Buy the Orishas series
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His most recent work since I interviewed him- African Kings