A conversation with Tau Lewis is an exercise in looking back as much as in looking forward. In discussing her figurative sculptures, she circles her art ancestry as frequently as she projects fresh narrative threads onto the work. Running this temporal gamut, she typically pivots around three themes: the potential for emotive transference in found materials, the imagining of new geographies for black existence, and the production of something generative, even as she incorporates the painful legacy of the Black Diaspora. As such, Lewis’s practice – which has become increasingly recognized internationally during its brief six years – feels at once melancholic and hopeful, and somewhere in between, tenacious and inventive.
Over the course of a studio visit with Lewis on a hot September day, I observe her sit almost intimately near a sculpture central to her upcoming presentation in Art Basel Miami Beach (with Toronto gallery Cooper Cole). Harmony (2019) is long-limbed, spindly, and roughly sewn together – a spidery black figure in a posture of meditation, holding a threadbare, emptied-out globe. Her toenails are made of seashells that look like pale moons, as are her breasts. Her face carries several sets of eyes, and the darning of her black body suggests empathy and intensity, her stitching worked-over and hard-won. Harmony looks as if it has lived a very storied life.
Invested in what she calls the “material DNA” of her fabrics, Lewis takes donations and scours the Salvation Army shops in whichever place she’s visiting to source her textiles. She works while on the road, between fairs and exhibitions, finding new swathes and quilting from her suitcase. The artist has long favored found objects (chains, paint cans, pipes, toys, hair, stones, copper, fabric, wires, acrylic paint, plaster), but recently she’s been particularly involved with fabric. In reviving discarded commodities, Lewis tells me, she transmutes their received histories and energies, and reveals the material’s provisional, labor-intensive nature as well as its evocations of the itinerant realities of the Black Diaspora. “So many of our cultural tools, especially against oppression, have to do with physical or situational upcycling,” she says, “[whether] of a circumstance or an idea or an object.”
Born in 1993 to a Jamaican-Canadian family in Toronto, Lewis has quickly established herself among a wave of young figurative sculptors. Taking what has been described in Flash Art as a “wayward approach to figuration,” “Lewis’s […] practice orbits rather than settles on portraiture,” writes Tiana Reid. With her family of sculptures, “the figural is where representation breaks down.” Self-taught (Lewis started school twice – for design and journalism, respectively – but says it was a bad fit), Lewis produces work that exemplifies an “outsider” aesthetic that has received much attention in recent years – if for its articulation of a particular kind of margin.
An undeniable marker of Lewis’s precocious achievements is a slew of recent solo and group exhibitions at galleries including Chapter NY, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, and The Hepworth Wakefield, UK. Reflecting on this rapid rise to critical and commercial success, Lewis weighs her options. “I do think about this restriction of access that we can exercise as artists. How do I reserve myself and not feel like I’m giving everything away when I’m giving so much away?” she asks. In response, at least partially, Lewis focuses on the labor of her practice and embeds secrets in the works – small talismans, texts – to mark them as her own.
A recent piece establishes a hand-sewn ‘map’ or family tree for one of her figures, and indeed, the figure and map come as a set, like a new friend who arrives with their stories and traumas. Titled Sparkles and Sparkles’s Map Home (2018), a stuffed, doll-like character sits on a chair, appearing relaxed, its legs crossed and head tilted to the side contemplatively. Hanging behind Sparkles is a visual shorthand of her personal history, the ‘map.’ It’s a patchwork of worn and loved materials riven with amulets, replete with memory and narrative gesture. This is the piece that began Lewis’s most recent series – the one where she began a new story.
Arguably part of Lewis’s desirability as an artist, but also part of her ability to mitigate its attendant scrutiny, is her sculptures’ sense of otherworldliness. This incorporeality can be traced to her aspiration to tell stories that feel future-oriented. She imagines her figures acting out narratives in space, or beneath the sea; she refers to recent works as mermaids, or as something unnamable, or spectral. In this way, Lewis grasps for something more generative or self-determined than the stories of loss and hardship that are threaded through her media. She gestures towards a new mythology, she says. Curtis Santiago, a peer Canadian figurative sculptor based in Brooklyn, New York, articulated a similar sentiment for his two-person show with Lewis at Cooper Cole in 2017. “I don’t want to talk about diaspora anymore,” he wrote in the exhibition text. “I want to create spaces to think about it.”
The celebrated Pakistani-American sculptor Huma Bhabha could be a kind of godmother to Lewis and her peers – a notable generation of emerging figurative sculptors that includes Santiago, Diamond Stingily, and Kevin Beasley. Bhabha has asserted that her work benefits from the influence of science fiction and horror films. “Viewers won’t necessarily make the same connections, but I want them to have the pleasure of looking at something that calls other things to mind,” she said in a 2010 Art in America interview with Steel Stillman. Stillman likens Bhabha’s work to ruins and notes how she exercises the “figurative idiom” through found materials and recognizable postures. She then applies it “as the metaphoric basis for an art that, like science fiction, reports and warns at the same time.” This simultaneous reporting and warning feels particularly relevant to Lewis’s practice, discernible in her use of found material that carries its history into new forms, for instance, or in the way she reaches backwards for ancestral citations, even as she crafts stories for the future.
What are also central to Lewis’s practice are the mobility, legibility, and protection that can be afforded by collaboration and collectivism. She landed her first studio in the Coffin Factory, an artist-run building that was recently shuttered in Toronto, where she shared a space with seven other women. From there, Lewis joined the RAGGA NYC collective, which comprises queer Caribbean artists including Oreka James, Aaron Jones, Michèle Pearson Clarke, Camille Turner, and Syrus Marcus Ware. Within this context, Lewis has had the opportunity to show at MoMA PS1, New York, and Mercer Union, Toronto, among other institutions, and to align her work with particular conversations around figuration in black Canada, visibility, and what she calls ‘the wandering.’ Lewis reflects on this as she puts together her presentation for Art Basel. “What does it mean for folks in the diaspora to wander? Not for the purpose of finding answers, but for the purpose of wandering. What does this tendency to mythmaking represent in us? Why do we recycle?” she asks.
Lewis extends this wandering and upcycling to her own education, regularly traveling to seek out the artists who affect her the most. “I figured out that if I really adored someone and their art, and they’re alive, I should try to find them and see their work in person.” This has led her to meet with Lonnie Holley, an Atlanta-based icon among Southern folk art, the sculptors and painters represented by Souls Grown Deep Foundation, a community dedicated to promoting African-American art from the South, and the Gee’s Bend quilting association. “I think there’s a lineage,” she says, gesturing to her own work, “though I do think there’s a cut-off of access at a certain point.” I ask her what she means by this, and she explains by way of process, citing her tendency to embed objects in her sculptures. Acknowledging what’s unknowable about her art ancestry is similarly about preserving autonomy, she says, “There will always be things about blackness and experience that are simply not knowable, or to be captured or bought.” And so Lewis turns to the imaginary.