by Margot Norton
Tau Lewis’s works seem to evolve from the inside out. It is true that some hold secrets within—buried objects of personal significance that remain unseen on the surface, yet one might sense that they are there—beneath the hollow chest, or behind the painted eyes.
Her secondhand fragments and found objects that have been stitched, carved, and assembled to comprise her pieces might come laden with the weight of an unknown history, bearing the invisible markings and stories of those whom they clothed or to whom they brought comfort. Through Lewis’s graceful juxtapositions, delicate sewing, and imaginative repurposing, these charged material fragments seem to reincarnate to form something else entirely, far greater than the sum of their parts.
Known primarily for her figurative sculptures and quilted wall-works, Lewis considers the healing or transformative properties of creative labor. Born and based in Toronto, Canada, Lewis did not receive classical artistic training. Her works conjure the countless self-taught artistic practices routinely overlooked throughout history—those acts of resourceful creation that might spring forth from a space of trauma, or erasure. Within her practice, the possibilities for transforming materials that are commonly seen as unwanted or undervalued into objects of remarkable pathos and beauty are potently revealed, honoring the myriad diasporic traditions of making cultural objects of limitless potential from limited means.
Working from materials sourced from her surroundings such as fabrics, furs, human hair, natural artifacts such as rocks and seashells, found photographs, and habitually collected curios, Lewis produces portraits that induce immediate intimacy. She typically lives with her works and acknowledges the therapeutic process and privacy of her experience producing each sculpture. Thus, many of her works have an inherently profound and personal relationship to the artist. One of her first soft portraits, Untitled (play dumb to catch wise) (2017), imagines the artist as a child assembled from her own worn clothing, sitting in a colorful rocking chair; another, something joyful (2017), portrays a monkey-like figure on a swing, its head fashioned with Lewis’s own dreadlocks. Lewis admits having difficulty in selling these works, as she has said: “They may be inanimate, but they are very real to me. I have a really hard time letting them go.”
Her hand-stitched pieces recall the rich tradition of quilt-making, such as the quilts created in the remote, African-American community of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, known for their unconventional abstract designs made from remnants of salvaged fabrics or clothing from deceased loved ones. As with the Gee’s Bend quilts, Lewis’s works, such as cheering sounds from the dark outer space (2019) or Sparkle’s map home (2018), speak to the complexities of memory and recovery, and similarly, they upcycle reclaimed materials. Each of Lewis’s pieces, with their dynamic contours, intricate details, and chromatic synergy, lead viewers on a journey of discovery. Within their cosmographic abstractions, one might recall a familiar fabric, object, or sentiment, yet they still remain distinctly strange—evoking shadowy memories or impressions without distinct narrative guidelines.
Lewis’s carved plaster figures, such as you lose shreds of your truth every time I remember you (2017) or I the spirit conductor come to tell you we were here before this (2018), are termed “time capsules” by the artist. Beneath their shell-like frames, Lewis tucks away a wealth of “secret objects.” These are often personal belongings, which have been with the artist for some time, hand-written poems and letters, or fragments from artworks that were created earlier, adding to a material lineage that flows throughout her oeuvre. Yet all of Lewis’s works could be considered time capsules as they each have Lewis’s waking hours, energy, passion, and labor embedded in their DNA. Lewis describes the motivation behind her working process with secreted objects as subverting an impulse for assuming absolute knowledge—a hallmark of colonialist and capitalist histories. As she has described, “I’m trying to preserve some kind of access that is restricted and selfish, a document of black livingness that is magical and unobtainable… By housing these objects, maybe the artworks themselves can achieve some form of autonomy?”
In recent years, Lewis has turned her attention to the rich and largely uncharted territory of the ocean, depicting mermaids and other aquatic beings that might have emerged from its watery depths in quilted tapestries, soft sculptures of imagined sea life, and slightly larger than life-size plaster figures. In these works, such as I’m gonna keep protecting the soul of the sea (2019) or The Coral Reef Preservation Society (2019), Lewis turns to the aquatic universe and its relationship to black geography and loss, summoning the countless traditions, stories, and communities forced to vanish or disperse during the journey of African slave ships to the West Indies during the Middle Passage. Recent exhibitions such as I bet this cave has been here for a really long time at Shoot the Lobster Gallery in New York (2018), and her installation in The Hepworth Wakefield for the Yorkshire Sculpture International (2019), draw from this imagined marine realm with resilient beings that might transgress physical boundaries to occupy aquatic, terrestrial, and perhaps celestial realms. By activating fragments of the past, both physically and conceptually, Lewis illuminates how they might remain undeniably alive in our present, their spirits seeping through the cracks.
TAU LEWIS (b. 1993, Toronto, Canada) uses hand sewing, carving and assemblage to build portraits. She considers spaces of erasure/ trauma, and how to re-access these spaces as generative information centers through storytelling. She works with personal belongings, found objects and recycled materials. These acts of repurposing, collecting and archiving are connected to diasporic experience. Her artworks are recuperative gestures exploring agency, memory and recovery.
MARGOT NORTON is Curator at the New Museum and co-curator of the forthcoming 2021 New Museum Triennial with Jamillah James. At the New Museum she has curated exhibitions with Judith Bernstein, Pia Camil, Sarah Charlesworth Ragnar Kjartansson, Sarah Lucas, Goshka Macuga, Nathaniel Mellors, Chris Ofili, Laure Prouvost, Pipilotti Rist, and Kaari Upson, among others. She recently curated the Georgian Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale with Anna K.E and New Museum exhibitions with Diedrick Brackens and Mika Rottenberg.
Portrait by Roberto Ruiz
All images Courtesy: the artist and Cooper Cole, Toronto
Video by Canadian Art