Tau Lewis was recently interviewed in the Toronto Star.
Tau Lewis: Of roots, and uprooting
Digging deep into histories, both personal and not, has put Tau Lewis on the verge of new frontiers
Blink and you’ll miss Tau Lewis’s studio, tucked into a below-ground grotto on Niagara Street in Toronto’s west end. That’s true in more ways than one: The building, a century-old brick factory that used to make coffins, is slated for redevelopment as early as the new year, which means Lewis and dozens of others profiting from its breezy occupation regulations (there are studios, workshops, apartments and almost every other kind of use throughout its five storeys) are soon to be its tenants no longer.
For Lewis, 23, that’s a foregone conclusion, condo-building or not. She’s applied for a residency in New York, “but I’ll probably start gradually moving there either way,” she says, adding that her work is “getting pulled in that direction.”
If she means to larger and larger stages, she’s right. Today, Lewis is in Los Angeles, anxiously cobbling together new work for a show at the Night Gallery there; on Sunday, another show of her work at Downs & Ross in New York will close after a month-long run.
In between, she’s been at New York’s New Museum, making new work for the cutting-edge contemporary institution’s Ragga NYC exhibition, a gathering of artists exploring their Afro-Caribbean roots (her piece, a plaster bust draped with chains, is called Georgia marble marks slave burial sites across America). And in what might amount to her Toronto farewell — for now, at least — she opens yet another show on July 21 at Cooper Cole Gallery here.
“It’s stressful,” she nods. “But I’m used to it. The good thing is that I don’t have time to second-guess myself. It makes the work super-intuitive. I just cross my fingers and hope things work out.”
In the studio, things are cleaved neatly in two, mirroring Lewis’s practice: On one side, an intimidating mound of materials: fur, fabric, broken concrete, a huge rusty cast-iron pipe (“I’m attracted to the heaviest things,” she sighs; “I should really start working out”). On the other, a tidy array of reading materials, outfitted with a slim banquette suitable for reclining.
It’s as though industry and contemplation sit quietly alongside one another in balance, a distinction Lewis values. “I work with my hands as much as I do with my brain,” she says. “When I’m putting things together, it’s about touch, and feeling, and weight.”
Weight underpins Lewis’s work in more ways than one. Her father is from Jamaica, and Black; her mother, from Canada, and white. She’s been trying to reconcile the two sides of her hybrid identity most of her life. Right in the middle of her work table, a tree creature and child-faced doll are entangled — maybe a symbol of her two selves, I suggest. “I don’t know,” she deflects, coyly. “The tree is carrying the doll, yeah. Supporting it? Maybe he’s captured it. I don’t know who belongs to who. I think they belong to each other.” She laughs. “I hope it’s a healthy relationship.”
In her earlier work, she kept a distance from such things. A show as recently as last October here “was speaking to this very large theme about Black Canadian identity — this dissociation of Black bodies from the natural environment, and I guess this erasure of Black Canadian narratives from Canadian art,” she said.
By February, thing had turned much more personal. For a show at 8-11, Lewis built an effigy of herself, as a child, alone in a colourful cinder-block shack that was eventually draped in snow in the gallery’s courtyard. The shack, a typical Caribbean structure at odds with the wintry scene, mirrored the divisions in Lewis’s own mind.
“It was on the same theme: Of Black identity as a kind of DIY, and constantly changing,” she says. “But it was personal. I mean, it was me. And it opened some doors for me.”
As some doors open, others will close, and the studio’s, one way or another, will soon be one of them. Pinned to the wall here are drawings and photographs — required contributions by the many visitors she implores to keep her company here (“I almost feel like hiring someone to chill here all the time, just to hang out, and tell me when it’s time to go home,” she laughs). It will be the end of an informal community centre, and a generator of her ideas. But like any expert forager, she knows you can always start again.
“I’ve been really lucky, finding things,” she smiles. But finding her way won’t take much luck at all.
Tau Lewis is showing with Curtis Santiago at Cooper Cole Gallery, opening July 21. For more information click here.
– Murray Whyte
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