Backstage Efàmero (detail), curtesy the artits and Pirelli HangarBicocca, photo Sha Ribeiro (8)

(Above: Osgemeos’ ‘Efemero’ piece for ‘Outside the Cube’ that Cedar Lewisohn is curating for Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan)

Artist Cedar Lewisohn is the author of the world-renowned book ‘Street Art: The Graffiti Revolution’, he curated the acclaimed Street Art exhibition at Tate Modern in 2008 and now in Prague for the three-year project ‘Outside the Cube’ which started this year at Pirelli HangarBicocca. The project will showcase various works of international artists devoted to street art and other art forms inspired by urban and public settings. I will be talking to Cedar Lewisohn about the inspirations behind his own artistic versatility, where his street art connoisseurship stems from and how he started in curatorial.

How does it feel curating a project for Pirelli HangarBicocca, one of the Italian havens of contemporary art? Why is the project called ‘Outside the Cube’? The amazing OSGEMEOS opened the project with ‘Efemero’. What can we expect from the future artists participating in this program? Drop names if you can, if not share to us why you chose them for this particular project.

It is incredible to be working with HangarBicocca. The team at the museum are fantastic. The architectural space of the museum is really something very special. The project I’m working on, Outside The Cube, aims to bring new types of work to some exterior spaces at the museum. The title of the project gives a playful nod to Brian O’Doherty, very influential book, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space, from 1976.  It’s been a real pleasure to work with OSGEMEOS for the first project in the series. Their work is visually rich and a layered with multiple histories and meanings. It defies simple classification. I first worked with OSGEMEOS at Tate Modern in 2008, so to work with them again on another major museum project has been a real privilege.

Where does your interest in graffiti art stem from?

In some ways, I guess you can say I’ve grown up with graffiti, it was a culture and lifestyle that spoke to me as kid growing up in the suburbs of London in late 80’s and early 90’s.  Somehow this sub-culture gave me access to a world that was very different to the normative values and aesthetics being offered at the time. A new form of identity politics opened up to me. Later on, graffiti provided a network that I was somehow on the periphery of, but still able to view. Graffiti also gave me an alternative way to interact with and navigate cities.

Do you think there is a difference in public reactions when street arts are showcased in galleries, museums or any well-known art institutions versus in a street? Do you think there is an exclusivity or elitism in contemporary art?

Yes, people read artworks differently, depending on their context, which is fine. I think there is elitism in the contemporary art and there is also freedom. As you scratch the surface and go beyond the fluff of finance in contemporary art, you find there are truly innovative works of art being made in all corners of the globe.

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How do you think street art has evolved through the years? What are the major progressions and setbacks, if any?

The evolution of street art is a big subject, if you think that what we commonly think of as street art started as early as the mid-1960’s in Europe and the USA. The huge exposition in the popularity of the subject in the last 15 or so years is certainly one of the major factors in this evolution. There are a few things that have added to this, but certainly the internet and way artworks and images of artworks now spread is a key issue.  In terms of setbacks, I would have to say that with the increase in the amount of work, we have not necessarily seen an increase in quality.

In your own words what is or should be the role of an artist in society? And having met and worked with many artists all over the world, is there a theme or similarities in their philosophies? Do you think art and activism are or should be two inseparable things?

I try not to tell anyone or any artist what to do. Each artist is different. Some artists take moral positions, some don’t. It’s up to them. My main concern when looking at art is quality. Is it good or bad. There is a lot of good art and a lot of bad art. Art and activism is another subject. This has a lot to do with location. The work of an artist in living and working in Egypt is quite different from an artist living and working in Copenhagen, for example. Their concept of activism might be very different. I recently did a project with the artists kennardphillips, their work is often linked to activism and social issues.

How did you get into curating? Can you share to us what the most difficult challenge is for a curator? Tell us something that may not be obvious.

I basically started to organise art projects though writing about art and speaking with artists. I also used to organise club nights, which included performances and film, in retrospect this was an early foray in curating. The difficulties in curating projects are many, but each project is different. Organising a project for a big museum is different to working with an artist run space or doing a project in public space.  One non-obvious issue might be the lack of diversity in so many museums curatorial departments. They say they want mixed audiences, but the staff are white middle class and upper middle class graduates.

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You are a highly talented multi-faceted artist. If all your sketches, drawings, watercolours, prints and the many ways you express your art were displayed in a room together without providing additional information, viewers would believe they are done by different artists. The diversity of the way you express your art says a lot about your skills and abilities. What ignited your passion in the arts? And can you tell us more on why you don’t limit yourself to a certain style?

Thank you. In terms of what you might call my schizo output, I just try and have fun with what I do. Each artwork, each project, is a new experiment. The analysts can worry about what it all means. While they are doing that, I’ll be making something else.

Which artists do you look up to and how have they made an impact on your works? In what ways have they helped carve out your artistic vision?

Everything inspires me and there are hundreds of artists whose work I admire. It’s also important for me to look outside other people’s definitions of who is and who not an artist. The other day I interviewed the legendry chef Pierre Koffmann. His laid back approach to food, married with a huge knowledge and high level of skill, is an inspiration. Anyone who can be at the top of their game for so long, and still say “It’s important to go work with a smile on your face” has got to be doing something right. It’s important to love what you do. Recently I’ve been looking at a lot of medieval art.  The other day, I was coming back to London from Rotterdam on the train, and I had some time spare, so I stopped off  in Antwerp, and spent about an hour looking at the painting  ‘De Spreekwoorden (The Proverbs)’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder at the Rockoxhuis Museum. I’d never been to Antwerp before and just rushed straight to the museum then straight back to the train. I really felt like some sort of art pilgrim. But it was worth it. Moments like that make life worth living.

Have you received any kind of art education? What kind of formal education have you received, if any that is, whether if it was an art-based subject or not. Do you think education has impacted your artistry? Do you believe that acquiring qualifications are important or needed in order to excel and be widely known in the art industry (mainstream or not)? What advice would you give to not just aspiring street artists but to all young minds getting into the art world?

I went straight to art college from school when I was 17. I spent about five years there. I’ve never done anything else other than make art, write about art or organise art projects (well, maybe a couple of shit jobs on the side). Art school was important in challenging me to think in new ways.  There are many traditional skills and crafts I learned back then, that I am still exploring today. Education is not about qualifications or certificates, but knowledge production. Maybe, to borrow a quote, art school is the place you go to learn to fail better.

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I’m intrigued on the story behind your ‘Black Drawings’ book produced at the Jan Van Eyck Academy. The use of dystopian, dark and distorted imagery is apparent; they remind me of works done by expressionist artists such as Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kerchner. What inspired or influenced that particular work? Is there significance at all of the colour black and the book’s huge scale?

Many of the images in The Black Book, are indeed inspired by German Expressionism as you say. These are mixed with images relating to the appropriation of African diasporic imagery, with a particular reference to Modernism. I’m interested in how much Modernist art, borrowed from so called “primitive” sources, and the erasure of those references from history. The Black Book was an extremely subjective response to this subject, inserting myself into the story. The title of the book reflects form and content of the project.

You’re currently exhibiting your ‘Cannibal Manifesto’ at the Joey Ramone Gallery in Rotterdam which opened recently. Is it inspired by Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’ essay? If so, how have you applied Andrade’s idea of cultural ‘cannibalism’ into your work since the manifesto was also a form of rebellion against the effects of European colonization? Share to us what the exhibition is all about and the story you are trying to tell.

Yes, the title of my show at Joey Ramone in Rotterdam is inspired by Oswald de Andrade’s ‘Cannibalist Manifesto’ essay. The show includes The Black Book as well as some of the preparatory drawings used to make it. The link to Oswald de Andrade’s essay comes with the idea of cultural appropriation and re-appropriation. It’s the idea of inhabiting images. That might seem niche or abstract, but the theory can be applied to many aspects of society and culture.

What do you consider to be your most successful shows/exhibitions as a curator and as an artist? How do you measure ‘success’?

My most successful shows as a curator are the shows where the artists I’m working with are happy at the end. That’s my number one priority these days,  that the artist is happy at the end of the project. After that comes the institution who is commissioning the work.  My most successful shows as an artist are maybe something for other people to decide. As for success, it’s usually just beyond the horizon.

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What can you say about the future of street art base on the places you have had the opportunity to visit and work in? Are there any street art trends you find inspiring at the moment? Any artists you want to collaborate with?

The future of street art is a question I’m often asked about. I guess the main point is, it’s going to expand. How, where and why? I’d need longer to go into that. In terms of places I’ve seen new work, late last year I visited to Sydney and Melbourne and saw lots of great art both on the streets and in museums over there. I would love to bring some of that art to Europe for an exhibition, as so much of what I saw has never been seen over here. Similarly, it would be great to take a project to Australia from the UK. Exchange between cultures, and travelling with other artists has always been crucial to the projects I do.

Are you currently working on a book right now? If so, can you tell us about it? Share to us some of the goals you have yet to achieve and do you have any exciting future projects that you’re looking forward on doing?

I just did a re-print of a small self published book called A Union Of Voices (Maastricht Drawings), which I worked on with a great designer called Anton Stuckardt. The book is a series of drawings I made while spending a year living in Maastricht, plus a pervy story about someone with an unhealthily obsession with push bikes.  I love making books and I’m always interested in doing more,  they can be self published quirky projects, or working with established publishers.  What I’m quite into at the moment is mixing fictional writing with images, so hopefully, that is something for the future. We are now also working on the OSGEMEOS catalogue, and I am very excited about that last detail of the project, as I think it will be something quite unique and collectable.

Thank you for speaking with Vulture Hound!