There's a lot to think about. There's a lot I'm thinking about. There's a lot I thought about. I'm still thinking about them. There’s a lot I am yet to think about.
I am visualizing it.
I’m telling you stories.
I'm showing you.
You are seeing it.
But you are only interpreting what you see.
More than anything, Tau Lewis is primarily focused on the self as her starting point in grounding the work she does as an artist. Her concerns are more interior than ever. She is at task with examining the self. She is preoccupied with sifting through her own personal history and putting her unflinching vulnerability to the fore. This puts her in a long diverging line of artists and creators using the self as their subject. A mainstay like Louise Bourgeois started making work from a young age until her very death at ninety-eight. And throughout the course of her long career, she did so by just being herself and using that as the center for her work. Lewis like Bourgeois is a curtain puller on inner states of what it means to be human and an individual within the landscape they are situated in. Bourgeois operated from the onset within an art historical setting that was quintessentially conquered by males and the mere fact of her active presence within this context became a protest to expectations of women’s contributions in the arts.
This intersects with the backdrop Lewis currently operates in. A backdrop that to this day, has tired assumptions and conventions as to what the norm is, whose voices are preferred, and who’s are shut out. As Bourgeois challenged norms through her prolific career as female artist, or as artists like Jimmie Durham drew on his indigeneity in disrupting western hegemony, Lewis as a black female artist is more than aware of the oppressive backdrop she is situated in. Her layered inward analysis of self helps to shape her work into a bigger picture. A bigger picture where she is having to closely consider an impartial exterior view of her blackness along side how she views her own.
Below is a compilation of my ambling conversations with Tau Lewis. It was a great joy to conduct this with Lewis. Big thanks to Lewis for her time and considered responses. Please read below.
"i want to understand more fully, why I’m making, as a person, myself. To tell myself my own stories and be vulnerable to me first and accept whatever I find and absorb it. "
Luther Konadu: What were you like as a kid? Did you do any after school programs?
Tau Lewis: I was a quiet and intuitive child. I was strange and thoughtful and emotional. I think those things are still true. I don’t specifically remember doing any after school programs no.
LK: Can you remember an early memory of making something you can now looking, consider as being a creative inclination?
TL: I think I’ve just always been an artist, I think many people who don’t practice art are artists as well, I think I’ve committed now at 23 to the idea that this will be my career, and any other career that I may pursue will be a branch off my practice, but I think I have always been making art in one way or another.
LK: What were your parents as people like growing up?
TL: When I look at my parents as parents they are strange and powerful figures, it took time for me to learn to look at them instead as people, it’s easier for me to understand them that way. I had a turbulent relationship with my mom for most of my childhood, I didn’t understand her decisions.
My mom, Patty Kelly, is a magical force, she holds the most power over me in my life emotionally. I love her so much that it cripples me sometimes. Thinking of her, and her journey and spirit. My mother is white, I am biracial, I think most biracial experiences, at least growing up can be challenging for the child and the parent.
My mom collected a lot of random things, artwork, old antiques, the house I grew up in was and still is a strange and eclectic place. Every room a different colour, she was always changing the colours of the walls, and not comfortable colours, dark blues, lime green, deep purple, bright orange, strange and colourful art covering every wall, it’s a lot to take it. I haven’t started thinking until recently about what effect all of the visual stimulation may have had on me and could have possibly informed the way I practice now. I’ve just come to realize that my mother has always been an art collector herself. My mother is a self-taught landscape architect, so an artist in some respect, she defines what it is to be a DIY, or to build everything from nothing.
My father came from St. Ann Parish, Jamaica. He came to Canada on a Sunday and found a job on Monday. At the time when I was born, he was working at an auto body shop, and he used to fix car dents with his hands. Bold, stubborn and unconventional. I don’t know much about my dad, he’s certainly a private person, he’s certainly suffered a lot for his life here, and is a workaholic. I’ve always struggled to have a relationship with him, and we still don’t understand each other. I’m 23 and I’m okay with the fact that we might not ever achieve those things. I can respect and appreciate what he represents. I surely take after him in his work ethic and self-motivation, seriousness and discipline.
cyphers, tissue, blizzards, exile. 8-11 Gallery, Toronto, Canada Documentation by Jeff Bierk and Polina Teif.
LK: So growing around a mom like that was sort of your early exposure to the arts in a way? Did you sought after it on your own as well? If you did what do you think made you want to do it?
TL: I’m sure being immersed in those things had some effect on my inclination to make things. I was just a creative child though, I remember failing at many things, and having a hard time expressing myself but always having a confidence when making things, painting or what have you, things I made in school as a child.
For the most part I sought after pursuing art on my own. I was and still am a skilled writer, I did well in my writing courses, and simultaneously was enrolled in a specialized arts program at Central Technical School where I went to high school. I couldn’t convince myself or my mom that pursuing art after high school would be a good decision so I ended up enrolling in Ryerson University’s Journalism program after high school, I was miserable so I dropped out after a year and a half.
No one was okay with the fact that I wasn’t in school so I tried again at George Brown for a design program (which was only one year), and I still couldn’t last, I think I just can’t be in school, I can’t pay attention or meet deadlines or focus. It was in the year that I was enrolled in George Brown that I did my first four exhibitions, I dropped out and got a part-time job and was steadily making art with the purpose of showing. I sort of let the momentum continue and since then haven’t seriously thought of ever returning to school.
LK: Where do you think your drive for getting an arts education on your own terms and subsequently making self-directed work comes from?
TL: There is opportunity for growth and knowledge everywhere, you can learn anything on your own you just have to look for it, or just do it. A lot of what I know now, I’m still not an expert on, but has been a process of trial and error. And when I feel good at something, I’ll usually drop it and move onto something else. I like developing skills, and I’ve never not been able to execute something that I’d imagined. A lot of it is mental, there’s no right or wrong way to learn something. It’s significant that most of the people in my family, even though they were disappointed by me dropping out of school, are entrepreneurs. I think this is the only way I ever could have functioned as an artist, I’m glad I didn’t go to an art school for several reasons.
LK: Did growing up in a place like Toronto foster your insular arts education? Was it a conscious decision to turn away from academia?
TL: I haven’t done enough research to know exactly what parts of living/ growing in Toronto have informed which parts of my practice. Possibly some of the frustration that informs my work surrounding black identity is because of the art landscape here and the difficulties of navigating that landscape as a woman of colour, but I think that same can be said of any industry or landscape when we talk about institutionalized racism. I suppose it was a conscious decision to move away from academia, but it also felt like the only option for me, and was just a question of what I wanted I guess, or rather didn’t want. You use the tools that you have to the best of your ability.
LK: How do you think you first began to consider critically thinking through object making and sculpture like you are doing now?
TL: I’m still learning to do those things, I’m not an expert yet, for the most part the sculptures that I make are just vessels for story telling and ideas. It’s a process of exploration and building, and not having any attachment which tools or materials I use to communicate.
LK: Tell me a bit about what led you to becoming closely aware of the African diaspora, its complexities, and how that landed you on using the cacti as a way of expressing this interest in the African diaspora.
TL: The investigation of my own black identity, a strong need to discover and accept myself, and not buying into the idea of blackness as a negative, which is an idea that’s constantly being sold to black folks, and all of society. We get used to these negative representations of blackness being thrown at us as an attack. It’s a tool to stop self-discovery and autonomy, I don’t buy it. I have an innate fascination with plants, I try to (in my work) dismantle and interrogate the dissociation between black bodies and nature, especially in urban landscapes. Cacti are an early fascination of mine from being in Jamaica, I frequently use cacti in my work. They are tropical plants that come from hot climates, they have become heavily domesticated and can survive anywhere in the world.
Cacti grow prickly spines that act as built-in preservation tactics, letting you witness their beauty, letting you know it hurts. Surviving in inapt surroundings, and very little attention. Still requiring love. These are the ways that I find cacti to symbolize African diaspora, and the perseverance of black life. I don’t doubt that my mother being a landscaper, and always interacting with plants informed that part of my practice in some way as well.
It takes me more courage to be soft, 2016 plaster, cement, tissue paper, fur, cinderblock, concrete
LK: How much of the way you see yourself as black female and is inform by the way the black body is situated in the US...There isn't as much active conversation on identity politics and issues of race much in Canada, so do you find that most of the information you know on how to articulate yourself and your identity with your work is from the US? or from American artists and writers?
TL: The information I receive about the black body is mostly informed by the fact that I’ve lived in a black body for 23 years. Maybe it’s that there isn’t as much of an active conversation on identity politics and race issues in Canada, I think the conversations and issues vary and maybe aren’t looked at and approached in the same way, but I think the underlying classism, systemic oppression and racism that exists in the U.S. is also very present in Canada. A lot of Canadians look at this place as so progressive, and so diverse, we forget to acknowledge the fact that our nation was build on the genocide of indigenous people, we have so much work to do, I don’t buy the whole peace and love persona, Canada is still a cold place that was built on, and still is upheld by white supremacy and institutionalized racism.
I don’t attribute any of my methods of articulation with respect to my work to anything other than my own journey and experience, maybe the way you framed the question is a bit confusing, if you’re speaking to race issues in the United States and how that might inform my work, than yes there is something there. I think that a lot of the ways in which black people suffer cross borders and communities. I think that a lot of the pain associated with the black experience is shared, and that pain certainly manifests in my work.
Everything Scatter (Army Arrangement), 2016 christmas cactus, soil, chain, wire, polyurethane, plaster, epoxy, chalk pastel, pvc pipe, paint can, rebar, cinderblock.
LK:There seem to be a reoccurring use of chains in different iterations in some of your work...be it to strap, fasten down or used as hair on some of your cast figures...can talk a bit about the significance of the use of chains in your work? Concrete and other robust building materials are also materials you return to for your pieces...why do you think you employ them in your work?
TL: I’m interested in using what’s available to me, a lot of the time I’m simply incorporating found and repurposed materials into the work. I collect materials around my studio, which is an industrial building known as the Coffin Factory (because it used to be a coffin factory) on Niagara Street. Because so much of Toronto, including where I work, is rapidly undergoing mass gentrification, these industrial materials are easy to get my hands on. Aesthetically, I’m attracted to the materiality of chains I guess. The reference of chain as an adornment or attachment to the body, in relation to blackness, seems quite blatant to me, but is open to interpretation by the viewer. I also find incredibly practical uses for chain and concrete in the context of building a figure or structure. I like the dependability of these as strong, almost unbreakable materials. I’ve found many uses for them.
How do you think your work changes or the ideas behind it shifts if say you were making work in say Jamaica...
If I were situated in Jamaica I could be making completely different work, or possibly not feel the need or desire to produce at all. Either way I think it’s impossible to subtract lived experience from artwork. I’d still want to make work about my own experience, if I were making anything at all. To land somewhere, even if it’s your country of origin, where you haven’t previously lived, or haven’t recently lived, is to have a different background and experience than the people who do. That’s where artwork can become appropriative and possibly even exploitive. I think about the ethics of story telling a lot. So I can’t really answer this question because really I’d have no clue, I wouldn’t know until I were to have that experience.
“Georgia marble marks slave burial sites across America,” 2016 plaster, cement, acrylic paint, chain, high gloss finish
LK: Do you think of audience when you think about your work? In terms of who you are communicating to? Do you think it's important to consider an audience for your work?
TL: Not really, I mostly just think about the work or trying to translate physically whatever object of idea or story is in my head. Personally, I think it’s disingenuous and dangerous for artists to consider (to a degree) audience or money during production. I guess that depends on the artist and their projective, for myself, not really, no. I’m just interested in storytelling. The artist has little control in the end over how their work is going to be consumed. A viewer experience with a piece of artwork does not define it’s purpose.
LK: I just always wonder with people like Kara Walker and even Theaster Gates how their work is received when it is shown outside of America? Their work is deeply rooted in America and American History esp. Walker's work and yet she shows in Europe and Asia and I wonder how people receive it or take it to be. How does a piece of work function if it's out of its context (may that’s a presumed context I’m giving it)?
TL: I think for the most part, Anti-black racism still functions at the same heights outside of America in places like Europe, it functions in different ways, but still at similar heights. So artwork that engages conversations about blackness in different lived environments is incredibly exciting and important. I also think that there’s enough conversation and awareness around Walker’s, and Gates’ work that most of their international audiences have somewhat of an awareness of the narratives they present. Most people who are invested in understanding art will read about it and have conversations around it in order to understand it better as well I think. Garnering an understanding of the social landscape an artist is coming from is a tool to better understand the work for sure, how the work is consumed internationally by non-black viewers is layered, because work pertaining to blackness always resonates most forcefully with black people. I think in many cases though, there are still visible areas of resonance that’ll reach international black communities, even if the story being is being told in a place different from where it originated.
So I think, depending on the work, it can function very similarly, in the context of artists like Walker or Gates, I believe it would function very similarly outside of the states. Or, it becomes a catalyst to new dialogues, or a vehicle for the audience to better understand a lived experience outside of the space in which the story is being told.
Angolano (God gift), 2016 fish hook cactus, plaster, epoxy, acrylic paint, fur, chain, wire, soil, stones, tree bark, rebar, cement, curb.
LK: It seems like portraiture making is shifting more and from capturing a physical likeness of the subject to more amalgams of fragments that relate to the subject...this is especially true with the tree sculpture from your most recent body of work. I am wondering how you came to this way of making and thinking about portraiture-making and also what you find you get from working this way that you maybe don't necessarily get from the latter?
TL: I’m thinking a lot about my resources, or using what I have, or what presents itself to me. I use a lot of scraps, or gathered materials, leftovers. The tree especially was a simple construction of these things that became a beautifully complex figure once it was finished.
The objects that make up the tree have intricacies in themselves. The rust on the pipes, the texture of the concrete of the cast faces, the texture of the fur, the tree bark. I have less of a hand in making the fine detail, or less control I guess. I’m interested in experimenting and quickly picking up new skills as I start new sculptures. Trying new methods and new materials constantly helps me to fluidize my process. I don’t want to have any attachment to certain methods or materials so I’m constantly trying things, and constantly producing. The work I am producing now my have a likeness to my other work but could have drastically different aesthetic properties from one of the sculptures I made a couple months ago.
LK: I know you've talked about your closeness to your mother and sharing a lot with her...was it any easy having discussions about that 'outsider gaze' she has on another's culture/community, tendencies of fetishizing and insensitive (intentional/unintentional) appropriation and violence that can arise from it etc...(I feel like such conversations are confrontational, even awkward and tend to be pushed aside)...so how was that ?
TL: I wouldn’t say that it’s easy but I wouldn’t say that it’s particularly difficult either, a lot of the thoughtful quality that I have as a person I think is a direct reflection of my mother, who is my ally. Also you can’t love anything or anyone unconditionally if you aren’t willing to work through criticisms and hear them i.e. having conversations like these. I wish all white people were as engaged as my mother, who I can always count on to listen, and to have open and thoughtful discussions with. There are dense layers to interracial relationships I believe especially between parent and child, they are immensely unique and come with their own difficulties and triumphs.
cyphers, tissue, blizzards, exile. 8-11 Gallery, Toronto, Canada Documentation by Jeff Bierk and Polina Teif.
LK: What do you think her engagement in such conversations say about her and her gaze into black culture?
TL: It says a lot about trust. She’s human, and a stellar example of one. I don’t want to make this whole thing entirely about my mother because it’s certainly not, but since you’re asking, she’s my favourite human. I think it says honesty, and dedication, dedication to hearing and honouring. Dedication to ally-ship, dedication to me.
LK: How do you see yourself as being changed/changing (in any possible way) by the process of gathering notes for the work through your mother, and thinking about everything that you were thinking as you put this work and text together?
TL: Self-excavation, I didn’t/ don’t want to continue making work about blackness until I can at least begin to explore and accept and understand my own personal blueprint. So the cyphers exhibition was the beginning of that, simply put. Aside from the process of producing the physical work there was a lot of excavation, mental and physical, in order to understand why I’m making. That’s what I want, I want to understand more fully, why I’m making, as a person, myself. To tell myself my own stories and be vulnerable to me first and accept whatever I find and absorb it. It required immense vulnerability to share, and do the story telling that I did for the exhibition but it felt really good, without giving too much access or detail into the stories I was telling. It was completely for me, and that felt good, I will cite the last sentence of the text:“as you encounter each figure, be aware that the stories they might tell you are different from the stories they tell each other.”