Interview with... Liberian mixed media artist, Lewinale Havette
Lewinale Havette is a visual artist born in Liberia, living and working between Atlanta and New York today. She is focusing her practice on mixed media printmaking. By incorporating photography, drawing and painting into her work Lewinale creates strong and colourful pieces, often transporting us into ethereal worlds. She practices her art as a self-exploration and centres her subject matter on the representation of Black women, challenging the White male construct of the art world.
Segolene Py: Would you like to present yourself by telling us about your background, where you are based now, how you define your practice.
Lewinale Havette: My name is Lewinale Havette; I am currently based between Atlanta and New York, as I travel so often to New York to meet curators and gallerists. My work is self-investigative, and explorative.
SP: Is your academic background relevant to mention?
LH: I have always wanted to be an artist and study fine art, but my father wanted me to do something like Graphic Design, a sure way to receive employment in the creative market. I studied Graphic Design for a few years, with a minor in business. Then, through my business minor, I received a scholarship for a degree in Medical Sales. As I had no money to pay for the end of my degree in Graphic Design, I took the scholarship and finished my degree in Medical Sales. Art was always my passion, though; I always drew and painted whenever I had time to spare.
SP: It must have been hard to complete this degree.
LH: It was challenging, and I am a dreamer! In studying business, however, I was given incredible principles that I still use today. So I don't consider my business degree a waste.
SP: Something you can transfer to your job as an artist.
LH: Yes, exactly.
SP: Is there any reason or inspiration for why you started to focus on your art career?
LH: I started to focus on my art career because I couldn't bear to do anything else; I had to create the work; the work was haunting me, and I had to pour it out. Denying one's dreams and natural gifts can slowly erode your mental and spiritual health.
SP: That is very true. Did you always do self-portraiture?
LH: I didn't. When I first started, I focused heavily on intercultural couples, and my husband is from a different country and a different cultural background than I am. For this reason, I decided to focus on documenting these unions.
As time progressed, I gravitated toward self-portraiture for practicality but mainly as a means to self-explore. Through that, I understood who I am without pre-cut societal labels. The work is very therapeutic in that sense.
SP: Is there an artist that you like or inspires you?
LH: Kehinde Wiley is the first artist I saw who painted Black bodies, so his art immensely influenced me for a long time. A lot of musical artists also influence my work.
SP: What is your ethnic background exactly? You said you painted intercultural couples; are you mixed-race yourself?
LW: No, I am West African, from Liberia. I was born in Liberia during the civil war, and I lived in several different countries in Africa. I liked this exploration stage because I had the beautiful opportunity to discover other cultures, such as the Afro-French culture in Côte d'Ivoire. I've explored Togo, Sierra Leone, Ghana, and a few others. Later, I travelled to the US at a young age.
SP: Can you remember these years when you were young?
LH: Of course, these years contain some of my fondest memories, especially in Côte d'Ivoire. I miss it tremendously; I forgot how people from everywhere congregated in Abidjan. I missed the culture, the food, the dancing, the colours, everything. I hope to go back next year.
SP: I really love your work. The first time I saw it, it occurred to me it was painting. But then I saw that you were selling your work as art prints. So I was wondering how you proceed to create your work? Do you use photography?
LH: My process is printmaking, and each piece is a unique original work. Once I complete the printmaking process, I leave parts of the piece without colour and add paint, coloured ink, coloured pencils and sticks. It is not a flat print; it is a mixed media piece, and I add several layers when creating a work. My work is photography-based. I start with the printed layer; I then add the extra layers.
SP: It gives it more depth! The colours are just unique. So strong!
LH: I wish you could see them in person. The colours are even better.
SP: You have a pretty restrictive palette. I was wondering if there was a reason for this.
LH: Last year, I had surgery, and I was in bed for about a year. I couldn't move or anything. But I would have these very vivid dreams, and my dreams were all monochromatic. Most of them would be in blues, white and black. When I could walk again, I thought I should explore this message from my dreams. Even now, I am heavily inspired by my very vivid visions.
SP: It looks more powerful when it is a restrictive palette, and in my opinion, I feel like there is more work into it. You tell me that you create from your dreams, and I find this experience even more powerful.
LH: I am also inspired by books. You think you know a subject, but you always learn something new. Wherever I stumble across valuable and exciting information, I note it down and start from there. I take pictures to inspire myself in how I want to portray a subject. Once I have the inspiration, I begin applying colours, print them out, and sketch them.
SP: I'm curious; especially nowadays, we often see portraiture where the artist represents Black people with blue skin, which you sometimes do in your work. I was wondering if there are reasons for this?
LH: For me, growing up and looking at art history books, even in the media, everything about art, you see this white skin represented. Even women's body shape did not represent what I had known of my world. I always wondered: where are we in these museums and galleries? Where do we exist? In parts of Africa and the world, you sometimes see very dark-skinned people with an ethereal blue tint to their skin. I sometimes replicate this in my work.
SP: It seems you also only paint women.
LH: Yes, mostly. In art, we should be presented through our narratives, and our lens. This reminds me of a proverb quoted by Chinua Achebe: "Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter."
SP: Do you feel part of a community, and do you think you have a role in it?
LH: Yes and no. My art represents Black women, and it establishes its theme for someone who didn't have a typical childhood, living with different cultures, being born into civil war. Although I often feel a part of a community, I also very often feel like an alien. I am learning that individuality and difference are gifts worth celebrating.
SP: Would you say there is a community where you are based?
LH: There is. The community of female artists is growing, especially in New York. Female artists of various cultures are doing tremendous work, and they are finally being recognised for this.
SP: Art we see here in London from African artists is mainly male orientated, and we rarely see a woman artist, which makes it even more enjoyable to discover an artist who is a woman.
LH: It is! We need to encourage women to do more creative work. It takes courage, and there is ample space for our stories and voices.
SP: Some of your pieces are a bit ghostly. One of my favourites is the one in the bathtub: Eau. I like how the character stares at the viewer, and I like the little details on the shoulder and the bathtub like smoke coming out of the subject.
LH: It is always interesting to have feedback. When you create something, it just flows. Sometimes I don't always think of the reaction my piece may provoke. Some of my conscious and subconscious feelings and experiences seep out in some ways without me realising it.
SP: It is part of self-exploration. Put it on the canvas and then realise what you did. As you said, it is therapeutic, so things come out. Do you sometimes create and take a step back and try to understand what you just did?
LH: To me, the understanding happens during creation, but I can look at a work I made after years and still find these beautiful bits that I am still learning and examining. When you create, some things are unintentional. This is why I like mixed media because when you combine all of these different media, things happen chemically on paper, which you sometimes don't expect. I would love to explore more media, and I would like to try sculpture and film-making at some point.
SP: I have seen some of your early works, and it was quite different from what you do now. How would you say your practice changed over time?
LH: As you mature, you learn new, effective ways to communicate what you want and how you feel. With my work, I have more clarity now. I do research, I read, I learn. Technique-wise, I talk to professionals, professors, and curators, and practice. It's always about forming a clearer path.
SP: That reminds me, you had a show at the Delphian Gallery. How was that?
LH: I submitted some pieces for a submission call they do yearly. One of my pieces got accepted into the exhibition. It was my first exhibition in London. They were friendly, very professional, and helpful people. I was delighted to work with them. I didn't have the chance to be present although I wanted to, COVID happened. It is interesting because my art travels a lot, but I don't always have the opportunity to travel with it.
SP: Have you ever been to London?
LH: Not yet, but I want to visit this year. I have a lot of collectors there, so I do want to visit.
SP: It is a very booming time for Black artists, so I would definitely recommend. What would be one of your best experiences as an artist?
LH: I will say the day I decided to leave my job and jump into my artist career. It takes a lot of courage to do such a thing. It was frightening, and I will never forget that day; it was a defining moment. I would rather take a risk and know that it will pay off instead of being miserable in something I don't want to do.
SP: What are you up to in New York these days?
LH: I am meeting with curators and gallerists, and collectors. It's all about relationship maintenance, you know. I am very introverted, so it is hard work. And there is not so much you can do via email or online, and people have to feel who you are.
SP: I hope everything is going to go well for you!
LH: Thank you, and thank you for your time. I enjoyed this interview.
SP: It was my pleasure, and I hope to meet you in the future, in London or the US.
New York, NY | Atlanta, GA