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A Conversation With: Christopher Dews

ARTS & CULTURE | INTERVIEW

Written by Stella Roper (they/she) | @stellyvision | Arts & Culture Editor



Christopher Dews is a Tāmaki Makaurau-based artist who mainly uses oil paints, while also dabbling in mural work using spray paint. He often captures concepts with his art that are around sustainability and the impact of colonisation. These topics have been at the heart of Chris’ work for the past three years, however, art has been a key part of most of his life. In this discussion, we touch on the very relevant themes he explores, his experience as an artist within Aotearoa and his passion for an eco-conscious future.


Your art often explores the concept of an environmentally conscious and, I would say, optimistic future for the country. How do you balance this optimism with the realities of environmental degradation and social injustices?


To get to a point where you want to make improvements, there must be something wrong already. From my time living in Auckland CBD for five years, I had become quite accustomed to the walkability of it all.  Everything I needed was within the same sort of three to four kilometres. However, while having gained that familiarity, I became more conscious of the problems that those areas faced. Every place I lived around, all those little bubbles had their issues which, unfortunately, seem to be mirrored across the whole world.


Cities often tackle things such as traffic, pollution, homelessness, drug abuse and just general violence. When you're exposed to that constantly, you want to try and help improve it. So I often paint landscapes in the way that I think it has the potential to be. So it's a better place for you to live and then hopefully it's better for everyone else as well. Often when I'm painting, I prefer to look at what is around me, my environment, rather than trying to paint from a place that I'm unable to access. Painting an optimistic future was sort of something that just came about. Just came from living the struggle in the city.


Many of your works involve on-site creation, using both paint and spray paint to capture the essence of Aotearoa's landscapes and city spaces. How do you choose your painting locations?


With murals, you have to work around permission and consider what and where you’re painting so that it’s not going to get tagged over straight away. Often I've tried to meet with people from business associations - the Karangahape Road Business Association has been very helpful, for instance. They've always been keen on helping out in terms of getting permission for murals. For my oil paintings, it's a lot about just the lighting at the time. 


With good natural lighting, you can capture that raw essence of what's going on. It doesn't need to have perfect composition, as long as you’re able to capture the nitty gritty stuff.


One site I have used for reference several times is Queen Street, partly due to the obvious wealth disparity there. At the bottom of the road, you’ve got designer stores like Louis Vuitton and Gucci, and then you've got a homeless person sitting between them. Things like this will catch my eye because it compositionally sums up what's going on in Auckland right now.


Themes surrounding land, colonialism and indigenous rights are recurring within your work. How do you navigate and address politically sensitive topics within your kind of artistic expression?


If you're painting something for the future, you've gotta be able to try to think about everyone and the political aspect of that is often torn because of obvious reasons. Certain people want different things for the future.


It was interesting doing a commission for the Auckland Council on what 2050 looked like because you had to put your lens through the Council, a group that looks at everyone. All communities and lifestyles needed to be included and considered, and so it was a unique task to make sure to capture that and balance political elements.


As an artist who does environmentally focused work, I would say you don't want to fall into the trap of like, just being a Green Party advocate either. You don't want your art used and seen purely as propaganda.  So I try and balance it out with things or initiatives that I want to happen, for example, re-greening streets. The reasoning is it's just gonna be nicer to walk down, you know. I'm not gonna go through so many pairs of shoes and it's just gonna be a softer, more natural environment that isn't so harsh on the eyes. 



In what ways do you believe that can contribute to discussions about environmentalism and social justice?


The Queen Street works are great for people, especially in urban design because often a lot of the works they're looking at are very orthographic and black and white. Whereas to have like an illustrated painting for people to look at as an end goal, it seems to make the vision a little bit more hopefully realistic and justifiable and not so "airy fairy" you know.


If there's something that people can physically see, to provide a sort of goal for the future, then I think in some ways that would be far more impactful in terms of having a more eco-conscious country.


I know in previous situations, you haven’t always asked permission to create work. How do you go about approaching for permission to create work when you do seek it?


Permission is a tricky one as it can come down to one or two parties, but often within Auckland, you have to deal with like five or six different entities in terms of gaining the final permission to achieve, you know a simple task of simply putting some paint on a wall. Because of how hard it can be to gain the final permission, it becomes not worth the effort to attempt to go through all the barriers and rather just do it.


So yeah, it has been a classic case in the past of, like, trying my hardest to ask for forgiveness rather than for permission. But that doesn't always go too well, having been arrested a handful of times. Luckily, if you always tell the truth in those circumstances, and I feel like my truth wasn't to cause any harm, you often get away with a slap on the wrist and maybe some community service. Ironically, the community service I had to do happened to be doing more painting, so it was a blessing in disguise. I think if you do things with good intentions, permission becomes not as important.



What would you say to aspiring artists who are passionate about addressing environmental and social issues through art? 


I'll say make sure you don't follow too many trends online 'cause then you're just blowing into the wind. If you ever feel like you need to do something in the art world, don't just do something because everyone else is doing it. I say find an angle that is unique to yourself. That is more likely to create an impact and make people think.


Another thing is, you just got to do it every day. That's what I've been telling all the kids working in primary and high schools this year. That period in life is a very delicate time for artists because often that's the last time people paint or use that skill because they'll go on to do other things. However, I think a stigma towards doing art beyond tertiary education is also apart of that.


When you're going out there, making work and you haven't got permission, I'd say the more confident you are, the more you can get away with. If you just go out in the day and make it look like this is what you're meant to be doing and you're not going to cause any fuss, that's a lot safer than trying to sneak around at night, you know, because there are a lot of sketchy people out at 3:00 AM and you find yourself in the wrong spot. You can find yourself in a pretty vulnerable position fast.


Something I've noticed about overseas is people are keener to give you more constructive criticism around art. Compared to over here, where people shelter a lot more. I think having that freedom to go and go and express yourself in that way is super freeing.


Are there any upcoming projects or exhibitions that we should know about?


In May I will be having a show, where I will exhibit all my paintings from last year on Karangahape Rd. It'll be good to get everyone together and celebrate another body of work you know.


In June, I'm going to Iceland for three months for an artist residency. Super exciting stuff. I'll be staying in an old fishing net factory that has been turned into a big artist studio. The brief behind that is a similar sort of thing. Living in a community that heavily relies on their relationship with the environment. Hopefully, I can bring those ideas and learnings back into another future show in Tāmaki. 


To keep up to date with Chris and his future exhibits, follow his Instagram: @christopherdews_ and check out his website: https://dewsyart.com/

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