May 31, 2018
We’ve fallen in love with the uncanny yet mesmerising work by Jamaican-Canadian artist Tau Lewis
Through provocative and figurative sculptures she explores the narratives of black identity with its history and politics. Cacti are used to symbolise the perseverance of black life for their ability to survive extreme neglect as well as severe domestication. Masks cast from black bodies are dyed pink using pigments labelled “skin tone” or “flesh tone” to shed light on the everyday exclusion of non-white people. These stories aren’t unfamiliar to us, but with the blunt finess in which she tells them leaves little room for ignorance.
Your sculptures have been described as powerful, magical and deeply unnerving, all at the same time. What do you think it is that shakes people up with your work?
Most of my work is figurative, but sometimes with very human aspects. I think similarly to dolls, some of my figurative work has a nature made sinister by its subjective human features, and silent indifference. Dolls are like the ambassadors to humans from the world of objects, humans project their feelings onto dolls.
I work within subject matter that depending on the individual, can be experienced as deeply personal, or discomforting. Some of my figurative work seems objectively violent, or has painful imagery, and most of my work is somewhat grotesque.
Do you feel that this is unique for sculptures or how come that became the medium through which you communicate and create?
I think because of the way that a 3D object is able to take up space, no matter how big or how small or what shape, it has a presence that is different from that of 2D work. The way that things may take up space can sometimes give them a sort of authority or autonomy that informs the viewer’s reaction.
My preference to use sculpture as my primary method of storytelling is in a way a selfish one, because of the satisfaction and pleasure I receive in those gestures. I believe in objects as entities, and that the repetitive gestures used to make something can transfer onto the object character and energy.
Rather than having gone to art school you are completely self taught. What do you think that has meant for your artistry?
I think pursuing an art career as a self-taught artist is difficult, I also think pursuing an art career with an MFA is difficult, maybe even equally so, just in different ways. I think one advantage I have, is that I had time. I worked shitty jobs and experimented and produced at home while most of my friends were in school.
While I was failing in my post secondary Journalism program, I was experimenting with and researching materials. I began participating in exhibitions, and making work with the purpose of showing, which lead me into a very constant, action based practice. My practice is still very action based, I do a lot of experimenting and failing. I have a lot of unconventional methods that seem absurd to people, but they still work nonetheless.
When you start on a new piece, what do you start from or find most important to cling onto throughout the process?
It really depends, I usually more often than not able to generate an object in my head and realise it, or something very close to it. Other times I’m not able to resolve the original idea, and so the object realizes itself much differently than I had imagined, because of technical details or materials or whatever, but I never force it to be the imagined object.
Because I repurpose a lot, sometimes I’ll find something outside and bring it to my studio, like a broken pipe or piece of concrete, and it will inform me as I continue to collect and build.
In your work you have used cacti to portray the perseverance of black life and as a symbol for black diaspora. What role do you think nature play in identity and appropriation of identity?
Having a relationship with and having access to nature is the greatest privilege and the greatest wealth. Creating a physical dissociation, and a greater societal mental dissociation between black folks and nature is one of the greatest and most commonly used tools in keeping black folks disenfranchised.
In urban landscapes, black folks have been historically pushed to the margins, and consequently live in hard, infertile, concrete landscapes. That dissociation is reinforced so aggressively in the imagery we’re constantly fed pertaining to blackness, that even in non-white countries, black bodies become primitive or less human, when we picture them in natural landscapes.
You previously said in an interview that “My politics make people feel awkward; that discomfort wraps around my work and takes up space. That’s a good thing.”What do you think or hope that this awkwardness does to those consuming your art?
If I could say that I hope for something, I’d say I’d hope for more openness in the art community to discuss the visibility of black identified artists, and artists of colour in general, which is categorically low, and underrepresented across the boards. I’d also hope for a similar conversation about the erasure of black narratives from art history and about the sexist, classist and racist foundations that our value systems in the art world are build on.
My art isn’t apolitical, but it’s not always outwardly projecting political ideas. Unless described, or accompanied by a video with words, which I have done in the past, it still has it’s own abstraction. The commonality though in all of my recent work is that it speaks to, or challenges parts of the black experience. The black experience shouldn’t always have to be politicised, black people, black artists, shouldn’t be politicised, but often when artist is black, the work is consumed as political.
Whether the work is meant to be political or not, it is blackness that at the root of it makes people uncomfortable. Black people talking about being black, is what makes people uncomfortable. Creating as an expression of experience is a privilege that many people don’t have. So if I can take up space in a gallery setting, which thematically has excluded the narratives of black folks, I will do that.
Does this mean that you get different reactions on your work depending on ethnicity?
Not really, for the most part the people who engage with my work, read my writing and come to my exhibitions already have an awareness and understanding of the ideas I’m expressing, regardless of how they identify. And I especially appreciate when someone lacks an understanding and has a willingness to ask about it.
My feminist identified work is for women, my work about black identity is for black folks, what I mean by that is that I’m not actively considering the perspectives of other groups when I create it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t experience the work. It just means that their experience of the work doesn’t define its purpose.