Tau Lewis spent years amassing her private assortment of seashells, which she harvested over the course of a collection of journeys to Jamaica, the island nation the place her father was born. She was interested in the shells that had been most weathered—those that had rolled round again and again within the tide, and washed ashore in a brand new, sanded-down kind. When she discovered them, many of those shells nonetheless had a briny odor, a pungent reminder of the depths from which they got here.
Lewis has at all times been fascinated by oceans. In a current Zoom interview, she recounted a narrative her father as soon as advised her about diving in Jamaica. One of his buddies had plunged down to achieve a freshwater pit on the backside of the ocean and by no means got here again up. After two days, his good friend’s physique was situated and hauled to shore, full of snails and stones in its orifices. She known as the ocean in Jamaica “extremely haunted.”
Because the shells have wound their method into her items previously, it’s no shock that her artworks composed of discovered supplies have taken on an analogous high quality. She described her sculptures utilizing the identical phrases a medium would to recount a imaginative and prescient.
“I consider them to be portals,” she stated of her most up-to-date works. “They’re autos for communication, you realize. I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m not within the concept of ghosts or spirits as malicious or scary issues. I feel that that’s really a standpoint that’s very harmful and rooted in anti-Blackness.
“I welcome conversations with spirits,” she continued. “They’re kind of the whole reason that I do this, in order to show appreciation, and also to acknowledge that spirits are there. These are vessels that traditionally would hold or carry spirits, and help them to communicate with humans.”
These portals— six gigantic faces composed of stitched-together strips of leather-based and cloth held on the partitions—at the moment are on view by way of January 7 at 52 Walker in New York. Their mask-like varieties loom over viewers’ heads, staring out in a method that’s both confrontational or inviting, relying on the work. Some spill forth with sewn flowers; others are composed of twists of cloth that coalesce to kind pores and skin or hair. As Lewis herself put it, laughing just a little as she did so, it’s “the most Tau Lewis work” she’s made up to now.
Lewis has been mounting memorable reveals like this one for the previous few years, and curators have begun taking observe. As her work has expanded in scale, her star has additionally risen. She not too long ago exhibited related mask-like sculptures on the Venice Biennale, the place they presided over the Arsenale, and she or he additionally has sculptures in an ongoing present concerning the Black Atlantic in Brooklyn Bridge Park. In the approaching years, she could have solo reveals on the Haus der Kunst in Munich, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston, the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris, and the Hayward Gallery in London—not a small feat for an artist who has not but turned 30.
According to Ebony L. Haynes, the vendor behind 52 Walker, Lewis’s work has gained a following as a result of she has already engineered such a definite fashion. “She’s really created a language that’s all her own,” Haynes stated in an interview.
Almost all of Lewis’s sculptures have concerned using discovered supplies, whose multisensorial qualities delight her. The materials she hoards come from thrift retailers, donations, and probability encounters, and she or he retains them in bins in her studio. She does her greatest to protect the materials within the state through which she discovered them, in order that they appear and odor as they did earlier than they arrived at her studio.
“I have this emotional attachment to all of the material, especially leather,” she stated. “It’s so romantic because its skin is oily—you touch it, and you leave marks on there that will never come off. It holds on to your scent.” For this motive, she encourages anybody who enters her studio to clean their arms totally, in order not to usher in the smells of cigarettes and meals loved exterior. (The completed works themselves usually have a pleasing odor, and within the first days of her present New York present, a leathery aroma wafted by way of 52 Walker. “When we first unwrapped the works, it smelled like a leather factory,” Haynes stated.)
Sculpture with an outwardly handmade high quality is changing into more and more uncommon today, and that’s one motive Lewis’s work stands out. She sews her work with out using industrial machines—“I’m very analog that way,” she stated—and this a lot is apparent primarily based on the uneven stitching. By laboring over the method on her personal, Lewis develops a stronger connection to her supplies.
The cloth at all times “has these little characteristics that you can’t control, which is my favorite thing about it,” she stated. “And it’s just full of secrets. It starts to reveal itself to you.”
Likewise, Lewis appears to haven’t any drawback revealing points of herself to these round her. When we spoke, her mom was days away from being given a medically assisted loss of life. (In Canada, the place her mom lived, euthanasia is authorized.) Lewis didn’t shrink back from this—she isn’t afraid of speaking about loss of life. “I have a pretty good temperament with this kind of stuff,” Lewis stated. “I’m not reactive. I’m not highly emotional.”
Twenty minutes later, she was calmly recounting her expertise as an artist. Lewis was born in 1993 in Toronto, and twice she went to high school for journalism. Both occasions she dropped out, and she or he doesn’t have the M.F.A. diploma an artist her age could also be anticipated to carry.
Many have identified that Lewis is “self-taught,” a fraught time period that has been utilized disproportionately to Black artists. But as critic Tiana Reid has written, though Lewis didn’t attend artwork college, she acquired her schooling in a much less typical method, by way of the shut research of her inventive inspirations. She even at one level met up with the Atlanta-based artist Lonnie Holley, whose assemblages have steadily been in comparison with Lewis’s sculptures. Yet Lewis has resisted makes an attempt to assemble a tidy inventive lineage for her work, as soon as telling Momus, “There will always be things about blackness and experience that are simply not knowable, or to be captured or bought.”
Something related could possibly be stated of Lewis’s sculptures at 52 Walker, that are beguiling and never simply legible. You can admire them for Lewis’s craft, however the longer you stare, the much less they appear to disclose about themselves.
While engaged on this present, titled “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Lewis had been studying the work of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, whose productions usually concerned using Yoruba masks meant to characterize deities bearing messages for a given neighborhood. Then her analysis took a pointy flip when she grew to become engrossed in research of angels.
She learn philologist Nora Kershaw Chadwick’s 1952 guide on the topic, Poetry and Prophecy, and studied texts corresponding to Islam’s holy guide, the Quran. And she grew obsessive about angel numbers, or sequences with repetition which are believed to supply religious steering. Given that these numbers started showing to Lewis throughout the decline of her mom’s well being and amid a surgical procedure of Lewis’s personal, she wasn’t certain at first whether or not they signaled one thing good or dangerous to return.
Lewis pressed on anyway, contemplating the weird format of 52 Walker’s house, which she finally determined she would rework right into a venue for contemplation. Utilizing false partitions organized in an octagonal kind, she aimed to evoke a religious house. “I wanted to make a temple,” she stated.
Standing contained in the present, it’s not laborious to grasp why Lewis conceived it on this method—you’ll be able to step proper as much as her sculptures and commune immediately with them. “They become like presences in the space, the more you live with them,” Haynes, the 52 Walker vendor stated. “The one that you think is your favorite soon is no longer your favorite, and you’re drawn to another character. It’s almost like I can hear them speaking in the gallery. They have very different personalities.”
The final sculpture produced for the present was Mater Dei (2022). Positioned close to the reception desk, it’s the solely sculpture right here that appears to have arms and ft, and maybe for that motive, it feels as if it’s essentially the most absolutely shaped being on show. Its lips are pressed collectively right into a slight smile—it is aware of one thing you don’t—and its title, which interprets to Mother of God, hints at its epic high quality.
“Every couple of years, I’ll make a show, and there’ll be something in that show I ended up feeling was the whole reason for me doing the body of work, as though I was supposed to encounter this thing,” she stated. “For me, that was Mater Dei. It was just kind of shocking to see the gathering of angels around that one specific piece, and how much was crashing down at the same time that she was coming to be. It was so hard to leave the studio that day.”
Speaking of all of the works, Lewis stated, “I still feel like they are trying to carry me through.”