Jamaican-Canadian artist Tau Lewis was born in 1993. The self-taught sculptor has had several exhibitions including shows at the New Museum in New York, the Art Gallery of York University in Toronto, and Night Gallery in Los Angeles. Much of Lewis’ work revolves around black history and narratives through sculptures, foraged materials, and particularly chains and cacti. She is currently based in Toronto, Ontario.
You use both synthetic (yet natural-seeming) and natural materials in your art. What is the significance of having both organic as well as highly realistic, sublime yet artificial elements in your work around bodies and flesh? Should we be able to distinguish between the two?
I no longer use synthetic materials in my work; formerly I would say that I was a resin sculptor, which is a medium that I quickly became unsatisfied with as I began to work with organic materials and found objects.
My practice involves recycling and up cycling, so gradually, as I moved away from producing new works with materials like silicone and resin, I incorporated leftover resin objects into newer works which were mainly made from found and foraged objects. This was always an important part of that incorporation or material relationship, the idea of recycling art objects into new objects. So you should be able to distinguish between these mediums.
I created a series that was resin casted faces, (flesh-toned mask), and later incorporated some of those faces into another series of sculptures called 'foraged, ain't free.'
I think my work is much more successful without the use of artificial mediums like resin and silicone, In my current practice I’m becoming more and more interested in the materiality of pre-existing things, and organic things, and how I can construct and build with these materials. I’m interested in using what’s available to me, especially things that have had a life prior, because they can sometimes add depth and pungency to the vessel, or relevancy to the story I’m telling through the vessel.
Can you expound upon the decision to erase the presence of African skin in “flesh-tone mask”—is it a response to the idea of color blindness?
The flesh-tone mask series and installation deals with black cultural appropriation. The work was thinking about tendencies by non-black, primarily white people, to absorb blackness and subtract blackness at the same time. That's how black cultural appropriation functions. I think this is pretty explanatory in the accompanying video, but these were physical representations of the subtraction that acts as a function of appropriation.
To desire black traits, black culture and black trends, without experiencing black systemic oppression and marginalization, or any marginalization at all, and most of the time without having an awareness or conviction towards issues affecting black communities at all. So the work is a physical representation of the function of black cultural appropriation.
Much of your work includes chains, cacti, flesh, and fragmented bodies. Is their a narrative, or perhaps several conversations concerning these, that strings all of your works together through using similar motifs and materials in most of your work or does it work as more of a defining characteristic of your practice?
Because I work with found materials, certain materials appear frequently in my work. I work primarily with what I have access to. My studio is in an industrial part of the city with certain kinds of scraps, chain lengths being one of them, there is a symbolism and weight about chains that I'm attracted to. I use my hands and my brain equally when I'm constructing, so I rely on touch, weight and texture, a lot of my material choices are about texture. The cactus is a recurring symbol in my work, as I think about African Diaspora, I draw lines between the physical characteristics and treatment of these plants, with the mobility and experience of blackness.
Cacti are tropical plants that come from hot climates, they have been somewhat domesticated at least in the western world and can survive pretty much anywhere, so they can survive very inapt surroundings with very little attention, but still require a specific kind of care. They grow prickly spines, which act as a built-in preservation tactic, and I also see these plants as representative of a very peculiar and uncommon kind of beauty.
I've been working on full figured sculptures and portraits for about a year now, I don't really work with molds and casting anymore so I wouldn't say that the idea of fragmented bodies is hugely a part of my current practice. I'm concerned with several ideas and I like to think that my sculptures are vessels that tell stories. Every series of sculptures I create is telling a different story and some of the narratives are quite personal. I'd say that defining characteristics of my current practice would be my reliance on my surroundings, and my focus on sourcing and repurposing found materials.
So I’m usually building a portrait when I create a sculpture, sculpture portraits. I think constantly about the erasure of black histories and narratives in Canadian history and Canadian art, the lack of access and insight into our histories, aside from storytelling, and because of this the fact that our narratives, our stories about our diaspora and our art have seldom been prioritized or archived in Canada. So by building portraits, portraits that reflect black identity, black experience, out of repurposed materials and objects that I find in our landscapes, I’m trying to remove that gesture of erasure from my work.
I’m interested in my own irrecoverable history, as a Jamaican Canadian, and the irrecoverable histories of pipes and tree trunks and scrap metal, and all sorts of objects that could have had a mysterious life prior to my discovering and collecting them. Part of the satisfaction that I get out of building with found materials, is that I feel that the action of finding, collecting and repurposing things is symbolic of the same resourcefulness that is integral to black existence.
Where do you find your inspiration for new sculptures and installations from?
I'm constantly working, even if not towards a deadline. I've accepted that that’s something I require as a physical and emotional outlet, and sometimes the most lucid way for me to communicate my ideas and concerns. So I'm always looking and always scrapping as well.
I’m interested in how things can be constructed, and how things can be repurposed or used in ways that they are traditionally meant to be used. Because (in terms of construction) there’s no right or wrong way to make a sculpture, and there’s no right or wrong way, physically speaking, for a sculpture to exist.
So a lot of the times I can find an object and let it lead me. I like to see how things build themselves and how they can speak to you and tell you how they want to fit together. I'm inspired by the objects, and I'm inspired by the stories that I keep with me, and irrecoverable stories that I'll never know, but are a part of my black history.
Your work in “cyphers, tissue, blizzards, exile.” is quite different, in terms of mediums, from your earlier work, how would you say your practice has evolved? What would be the soundtrack to this work?
I've only been seriously creating sculptures for a few years, but because I have such an action driven practice I don't ever have the time to second-guess what I'm going. There's no right or wrong way to build, and everything I make is a precarious experiment of some sort.
I had three months after my first solo exhibition to create the work in the 'cyphers' exhibition. I didn't have a lot of time for material investigation, so things had to really flow and I had to be super intuitive and confident about the work that I was producing. This also marks where my work becomes a bit more personal, I decided that I didn't want to do any more investigation into African diaspora or black identity before I could at least begin to approach my own stories and trauma, and understand some of the historical and generational traumas that have affected me.
The exhibition was very site specific, So the portraits in this exhibition act as portraits of historical and personal trauma. This was an interdisciplinary exhibition which also combined photographs and videos to create site specific installations. I'm not sure if you're familiar with 8-11 Gallery, they moved locations recently, but formerly they occupied a weird little storefront on Spadina in Toronto, with a massive labyrinth like basement and a huge back yard.
So those were the spaces I was most interested in when creating the exhibition. and I was able to imagine the work and manifest it physically within those spaces. I also created portraits that were much more obviously figurative (I think) for this exhibition, maybe than precious work, but these work the result of successful material experimentation as most of my current work is.
Images courtesy of artist Tau Lewis
words PERWANA NAZIF
More to read