“I secretly hate it when my work sells,” Tau Lewis tells me during a visit to her studio in downtown Toronto. The 23-year-old artist is cradling one of her newest pieces as we chat—a doll-like soft sculpture she’s hand-sewn from scraps of her own clothes. Every now and then she adjusts its legs in her lap and gazes distantly into its mask-like face. “They may be inanimate, but they’re very real to me,” she says. “I have a really hard time letting them go.”
Lewis’s work is deeply personal, both conceptually and physically. For one thing, her pieces often incorporate plaster or resin casts taken either of herself or people in her life. Her early work explores female objectification via disembodied castings of breast, belly, vulva, tongue and her own face. “I wanted to honour, very honestly, the female body. And of course, the face,” says Lewis. “It’s so trippy and cool to me how easily and instantly you can produce an exact replica of yourself, or an exact replica of your friend,” she says.
Lewis is fascinated with the human face, a motif she returns to again and again in her work: for “Selfie” (2015) she made a resin replica of her face with painted lips, cheeks and eyes; “Everything Scatter (Army Arrangement)” (2016) is a DIY bust comprised of twisted wire, chain, cinderblock, a paint can and a plaster casting of a friend’s quiet expression; for her 2017 show “cyphers, tissue, blizzards, exile,” Lewis placed broken pieces of a man’s visage in the branches of an uprooted tree.
“The face is the most interesting part of any figure,” she says. “When I was a kid, my mom had this orange death mask on the wall and I would always look at it like, ‘What the f-ck is that thing? Who is that? What is that for?’ It’s still there and it clicked recently, like, wow I’ve done so many things that look a lot like that.” Lewis pauses and stares into the face of the figure in her lap. “There’s something kind of grotesque about looking at something inanimate and finding similarities with things that are real—like with people, with yourself.”
Lewis doesn’t shy away from the grotesque in her work. Her sculptures are often disturbing or somehow off-kilter. And her use of found objects—PVC pipe, rocks, wires, zip ties, tattered clothes, human hair—further heightens those feelings of repulsed fascination in her audience. “I think people are attracted to strange, not creepy or scary, but strange because that’s where the wonder is,” she says. “That intrigue can draw people in and hold them so that they’re with your thoughts.”
For Lewis, the grotesque is a lure, one she uses to engage the viewer in an honest dialogue about issues like feminism, Black identity and the African diaspora. It’s a dialogue that, even for her, is ever evolving and becoming increasingly personal. “I don’t want to make any more work that is not inclusive of my identity and my narrative as a Black female,” she tells me. “I want to gain autonomy as a Black person. I want to define what being a woman is for myself. And I want to regurgitate those ideas in my art and confront people with them.”
For “cyphers, tissue, blizzards, exile,” a show she describes as “a huge self-excavation,” Lewis dove into her personal history to create a dream-like landscape housing three soft sculptures: a child self-portrait, a mother figure and a father figure. “They all represent me or people who have informed me as an individual,” she says. “I believe that objects can carry energy and become quite real, so I’ll infuse them with personal things—like old clothing of mine or jewellery—and hide them inside them. I like to think of them as talismans; they have bits and pieces of me in them.”
Which of course only makes selling them all the more difficult. “I’m getting very attached to them,” she admits, the figure still nestled in her lap. “I’m thinking about maybe having conditions for the buyers. I would like to have visiting rights and I would like them to have certain things. It doesn’t seem fair to have had such intimate, real relationships with them, and then just send them off. I want to know where it’s going and I want to know who’s having it. I want it to be loved.”
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