In Vox Populi, Vox Dei, Tau Lewis’s recent exhibition at 52 Walker, textiles and temporal forces worked together to unstitch and rethread imperial mythmaking. Lewis’s monumental sculptures, inspired by sci-fi, angelology, and ceremonial Yorubaland masks, were arranged in a circular stage to create a rounded theater in the style of the ancient Greek proscenium. Although the ancient Greek and Yoruba empires Lewis’s works invoked were contemporaneous, the empire that did not persist (with the rise of ancient Rome) is often the one imagined in the creation mythology of “the West” as the conqueror rather than the conquered. Lewis repurposes the already repurposed Latin phrase meaning “the voice of the people is the voice of god,” originally used symbolically to refer to the transfer of power from one empire to another. The phrase was later used by eighteenth-century British politicians as power shifted away from the monarchy with the rise of bourgeois capitalism fueled by colonialism. Lewis’s uptake of the phrase presses on toward de facto universal freedom by imagining that time when the voice of our creator is finally recognized, in truth, as the people’s voice.
The most impressive work in Lewis’s series, Trident (2022), beamed the darkest shades of black out onto the central stage. The sculpture consists of a steel armature in painted leather, shearling, shagreen, fur, suede, snakeskin, cotton twill, and nylon. The scale of Trident—at over thirteen feet tall in a group of works ranging from seven to thirteen feet in height—caused a gasp to catch in my throat. As my body cautiously moved closer to witness the floor-to-ceiling bust, various facial features began to take on greater significance within the design of the sculpture’s facade.
The soft, cushiony, black lips of Trident are even wider than arm span, and its giant pupils seem to gaze upward to another realm—or perhaps stare back at its cousin, Lewis’s poetically titled Sol Niger (With my fire, I may destroy everything, by my breath, souls are lifted from the putrified earth) (2021), which was on view in the Arsenale at the 59th Venice Biennale. The pink, purple, and primary-color patchwork of Homonoia (2022), crowned by six concentric circular antennae reminiscent of Bantu knots, was the smallest work in the Tribeca exhibition. The classical Greek concept of Homonoia references the professed belief in the rule of proportionality as the basis for organizing a just state. However, the concept was interpreted selectively—it applied only to Greek city-states under Alexander’s rule, for example—and not to “barbarian” outsiders. By symbolically enlarging features inspired by ceremonial masks, such as the closed lids of the work Ivory Gate (2022), Lewis’s sculptures, through what the artist calls their “material DNA,” offer a space to rest for millennia of ancestral sensations. These sensations, made palpable to viewers, have brought awareness to how myths or ideologies attempt to deny the knowledge of the dominated.
Far beyond the scale of any human features, the figural elements of Lewis’s sculptures are intended as charismatic gestures; they do not attempt to be faithful to any particular cultural tradition. All at once, I thought of the carvings at Easter Island, processions to celebrate local Catholic saints who never made it to the Vatican, and the celebratory dances of lunar and water cosmologies (see Lewis’s blue-green goddess titled Saint Mozelle, 2022), as well as our disappointment at being unable to return home in the face of the not-so-powerful Wizard of Oz.
In the gallery, the creation of works of art from scraps of fabric that usually end up in the landfills of the post-colony invited viewers to imagine the often invisible labor of the millions of garment workers toiling in the fashion industry. The buildup in each sculpture of layers and layers of hand-sewn panels, ranging from inch-sized to several feet long—primarily in leather, fur, cotton, and nylon—invited viewers to imagine their own comparatively small-size bodies activating the six sculptures’ silent opera. As the dramaturge of this play reflecting on our multidimensional neocolonial present, I could hear Lewis asking: “How might we weave a world en masse after ripping apart and re-stitching this one, as a form of not only material reconfiguration, but also as a mode of spiritual renewal?”
The reorientation of received myths (ingrained, for example, by European Christianity’s doctrine of the divine right of kings or its nineteenth-century iteration, Manifest Destiny) happening in Lewis’s concept of material DNA means the scale of her masks also seems to be inspired by the spirit of the story of the Trojan horse, wherein a feigned gift is used to surprise the enemy. Lewis’s constructions may also covertly work as anti-gifts already on a mission to reverse the journey of masks stolen for profit and pleasure over centuries. European pirates sold masks to collectors, only a handful of which are visible in institutional collections; the others are still secreted away by private owners who continue to sell and resell them. Benefitting financially from theft continues to be the modus operandi of collectors who fail to understand the dependence of their own financial gains on spiritual destruction.
Indeed, the power of “Western” ideological violence will require us to rip apart and reconfigure our historiography of modern art as well. If the viewer associates Yorubaland with Lewis’s masks, they are also likely to be reminded of the most popular contributor to the myth of a distinctly European modern art: Picasso. The myth of Picasso’s modernist innovation requires an understanding of the painter and sculptor’s capacity to convince his audience that, through his appropriation of/inspiration from looted masks brought to market and displayed at the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris, he had managed to capture the split between primitive and civilized man. In fact, Picasso’s theme is the monstrosity of Eurocentric thinking alone.
In what amounts to well-played bourgeois salesmanship, Picasso successfully sold his ignorant appropriation of what he believed to be the animating spirt of Black Africa (understood as raw or primitive until stirred up with his individual artistic genius) to become and remain the singular arbiter of propaganda for Eurocentricity. During the culture wars of the late 1980s and 1990s, Adrian Piper wrote in her essay “The Logic of Modernism”:
Here the aim of appropriation would not be to exploit deliberately the Other’s aesthetic language, but to confound oneself by incorporating into works of art an aesthetic language one recognizes as largely opaque; as having a significance one recognizes as beyond one’s comprehension. Viewed in this way, exploitation is an unintended side-effect—the consequence of ignorance and insensitivity—of a project whose main intention is to escape those very cognitive limitations.
But what happens if, as Lewis achieves with these works, pride of place is given to the power of spirits guiding “the West” to its own demise? What then of freedom, the everydayness of divinity, or infinity understood as the fractal cascade of trans-generational wisdom? What if the spiritual crisis set upon the world by the greed of aristocrats and symbolized by the currency stamped with their faces could both cut ties with and rethread the strings of power making puppets out of all of us?
Systems of violent conquer—whether in the form of warring empires or the desperate censorship of authors critical of them—do not and are not intended to foster enlightenment. Nontraditional or counter-hegemonic modes of education crisscrossing old genres and new techniques are necessary to resist disciplinary regimes offering nothing more than the further effects of increasing authoritarianism and precarity. In a 2020 interview with curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, titled “Magic in Limitation,” Lewis says she imagines her practice as a form of sci-fi storytelling, with each character morphing as the story continues across her life and exhibitions. I think of the experimental pedagogies of the Bauhaus and the Black Mountain School, and more recently, the pedagogical model offered by scholar Jillian Hernandez, who reorients the notion that excess is somehow a sign of decadence marking the non-European’s incapacity for intellect and civility. She writes in her 2020 book Aesthetics of Excess: “To attribute excess would be to measure these styles against modernist European stylistic values, which were generated by influential white tastemakers, men who linked racial and gendered inferiority to so-called aesthetic indulgences.”
The titles of Lewis’s sculptures like Mater Dei and Resurrector work as incantations expressing the gravitational pull of a pre- and post-biblically inspired theme of both the beginning and end of days. I see Lewis attempting, through such references, to metabolize and reorder the ongoing effects of the same anti-Black structures that curator Ebony L. Haynes described explicitly in her June 2020 interview with Momus: The Podcast. In that conversation, hosted by Lauren Wetmore, Haynes describes the thickness of microaggressions merely exemplified by an experience at an art-fair booth in 2018: “A collector called me a N****r. He called me ‘le nègre’ actually … You have to let it wash over you or you’ll want to die.” Haynes, who also curated Tau Lewis’s debut New York City solo show in 2018 at Shoot the Lobster, continues to nurture the careers of each of the artists she has championed in over a decade of exhibitions at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, Martos Gallery, Shoot the Lobster, and now, 52 Walker.
And yet there is a disconnect between championing the careers of Black artists and the larger restructuring that Lewis calls for through the sculptures themselves. As I complete this essay during Black History Month in February 2023, and Lewis plans forthcoming exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery in London and at Fondation Louis Vuitton later this year (followed by solo exhibitions at the ICA Boston and Haus der Kunst in Munich in 2024), the experiences described to me by many Black arts professionals seem to be no less harrowing than they were a few years ago.
Still, I sense the refusal of a repetition. Lewis is not merely interested in winning yet another battle in the long, bloody history of domination. Instead, I sense hope in the way she represents enlivening forces that remain active within the West African referent and the inheritance(s) passed along by way of all nearby traditions and genres. She is awakened to the possibility that things could be otherwise. Just as in the multiple-Earths theory at the heart of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica, Lewis raises the specter of spirits (angels or aliens?) at work in an incomplete historical arc still being configured in a yet-to-be-written eschatology.
Greek gods flee. Lewis’s work reminds me that genealogies of transgression are always immanent within the origin mythos of the West. In Euripides’s Bacchae, masks worn by actors transform them into Bronze Age heroes hearkening back to a time when the gods of the city had more direct intercession in human affairs. Further layers of transmutation build that plot’s complexities, raising doubt about the permanence of imperial Athens. While women were unlikely to be in the audience (made up of highborn male citizens), male actors in the play disguise themselves as women and, through the supernatural power of a female cult called the Maenads, they turn into a Bacchanalian [later Dionysian] force, confusing the boundaries between wild nature and the divine—a balance thought necessary to preserve and guide the Athenian empire. Put on the defensive in their generation-long war against the Spartans, the characters representing the priestesses of Bacchus experience a trance-induced mania or psychic transformation, whether caused by psychotropic substances or hypnotizing gods. It guides them, as earthly change agents, to open up or renew decaying orders of power and thus transform society’s political possibilities.
Asked about his opinion on religion in 2016, Nobel laureate and poet Akínwándé Olúwọlé Babátúndé Ṣóyíinká (known as Wole Soyinka, whose 1973 adaptation of Bacchae offered contextualization and celebration of post-colonial Nigeria’s freedom from the British) said that there has been only one religion that has never been interested in warring on its own behalf, has organized no crusades nor jihads, nor armies of conscription, and that offered the one guiding path strong enough to travel and syncretize with the other religions it encountered while preserving its traditions without force: the Yoruban spirituality of Orisha.
An artist I know, whose work considers currency in the context of Abidjan, reminded me of Michel Foucault’s lectures at the Collège de France on the ancient Greek concept of parrhesia, in which he describes the Cynics’ challenge to change the value of the currency (Diogenes of Sinope was even rumored to have rubbed out the embossed face of the ruling emperor on the coin of his day). The dimensions—or the square footage, perhaps the dominant symbolic currency in circulation in New York City—of Lewis’s exhibition means that it will be difficult to forget. While walking through the gentrified art world of Tribeca as a Black femme art critic of a darker hue, I might take comfort in feeling covered by the protection of Lewis’s Trident, for example.
Nonetheless, we never fully escape the society that is shaping us, and there is something particularly (North) American about how comfort is built up from great density and size to form this protective element. However, by giving maximalist face time to miraculous ancestral protections, Lewis symbolically revalues sources of vitality. The scale of her works in Vox Populi, Vox Dei only measures the call of, and metes out an appropriate response to, eschatological longing, wherein only the theater of imagination could begin to rectify magnitudes of spiritual dispossession.