Tau Lewis nears end of campus residency

Artist uses found objects to make poignant art 

Sculpture from Tau Lewis’ when you last found me here at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. 
Credit: 
Agnes Etherington press release.

Tau Lewis, the artist-in-residence at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre, never planned on pursuing a career in art.

While she valued sculpting as a child, she didn’t return to it until she dropped out of college. Her adult work was more for therapeutic coping, and, eventually, evolved into a successful artistic career that brought her to Queen’s.

She is set to wrap up her stay at the Centre on Sept. 28.

During her 13-week residency, she has guest lectured, led workshops on how to make art using found objects, and personally mentored young artists. She's also exhibited her art show, when you last found me here, which will be on display until Dec. 2 in the Davies Foundation Gallery.

Much of Lewis’ artwork is instinctive. It started from a compulsive need for comfort and has evolved into a full-time career. She follows her gut and pulls inspiration from things she knows best: her dreams, music, and Black culture.

Lewis’ work is imaginative and otherworldly. Her subjects are decrepit human-like figures posed in unsteady positions. Many of the figures are lying down or sitting, collapsing-in on themselves. These sculptures are on display in when you last found me here.

In this project—and in her past work—Lewis uses found materials when creating her sculptures. Often times she’ll use garbage, but others she’ll dabble in human hair.

“I think that Black hair is one of the most beautiful materials that I could adorn one of my sculptures with,” Lewis told The Journal via email.

She said the practice is traced back to the Yoruba of West Africa. Yoruba masks often used human hair and even teeth in their artistic assemblages.

“[This] was common practice in African and Black Atlantic communities and has ties to ancestral communication, anti-capitalist values, and spiritual traditions,” Lewis said.

The use of her own hair—and that of her friends close to her—is a way of imbuing life into her work. She believes in the transference of energy through the use of personal belongings—incorporating human hair in her sculptures is a sacrificial offering.

“I consider my artworks to be alive. To me, they feel familial. In bringing something into the world, it’s important to me that I give it something of myself, to have a connectivity to the object, as well as protect it,” Lewis said.

Aside from the use of hair and garbage, Lewis said any material could be used as long as it serves her theme of Black culture.

The work focuses on the ties between Blackness and nature. She muses on the similarities between human appearances and natural settings.

“The skin tones that I create mimic landscapes. I find many of my materials outside and they’re often old, rusty, or weathered to some degree,” she said.

The communion between Blackness and nature is an obvious theme when viewing Lewis’ sculptures. The found objects range from metal to a fur-like material, sticks, string, wooden planks, and—of course—Lewis’ own hair. The dark colours create an appearance boating various tones of Brown and Black skin.

“I want to make work that’s about Black imagination and healing,” Lewis said. “But when you’re making work that is about Blackness, some audiences have a very hard time because it’s harder for them to understand.”

As a professional artist, Lewis recognized the subjective nature of her line of work. She’s aware people interpret artwork based on their individual experiences, but also notes the way a subject is represented in art plays a vital role in society’s attitude towards it. 

“We get very accustomed to only seeing representations of Blackness as suffering or struggling through something. Black artwork that’s about pain is easier for non-Black audiences to grasp and appreciate because it’s the norm and that’s f—ked up.”

This interview was edited for style and clarity.

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