Toronto-based artist Tau Lewis has taken up residency at Queen’s University for the fall semester. 

Lewis works primarily as a sculptor but writes as well. She initially went to university to study journalism before dropping out – twice – and dedicating herself to art. She spoke with Muse over email about the work she’s doing at Queen’s and the steps she took to get here.

“I’m thankful for my experience although it’s been an extremely challenging one,” she wrote about her path to success.

Despite a lack of formal training – art school or otherwise – she has had art in galleries across North America. One of the primary focuses of her art is black identity in Canada and in general. 

“I make work about the black imagination, black geographies and wonder” she wrote. In this vein, Lewis participated in ART AND BLACK CANADA 1 on September 13th – a talk also featuring artist Charmaine Lurch and writer/editor Yaniya Lee. 

At this panel-discussion hosted by Prof. Katherine Mckittrick of the Gender Studies Department, the idea of creating space for black people in Canada, narrativizing them as other major groups of people in the country have been was treated. 

Lurch pointed out the example that few people know the first taxi service in Ontario was owned by a black couple, the company’s colours were the inspiration for the TTC’s red-and-white. This is a little-known fact, but it’s the work of women like these that is carving out a corner for the appreciation of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, and the continuation of the discussion of rights without the pretense of ‘look how far we’ve come’.

Lewis continued this theme in the email exchange, writing of the healing nature of creation. “Healing from personal, collective and historical traumas” she wrote, “So I make art for black people.”

According to Lewis, “[a] lot of black experience, even when personal, is shared on different levels and across borders.”

Another aspect to Lewis’ sculptures is the history of the objects themselves. 

She touched on this at the talk, discussing that even inanimate objects have histories, have been places and seen things like everyone else. This touched off a discussion of M. NourbeSe Phillip’s poetry collection Zong!which discusses a massacre of black slaves in 1781 so that the company which owned the ship and its human cargo could collect insurance money. In other words, these people were at one time considered no more than objects, as less than human because they were African. 

As part of her residency, Lewis is exhibiting a large display of her work in an exhibit called “Tau Lewis: when you last found me here” showing at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre until December 2nd. 

It features the essence of Lewis’ oeuvre – her somewhat creepy sculptures of people. You know they are people because of their bodies – with limbs, faces, and emotions. But, they are unsettling to an extent and this stems from the way she makes them.

She uses those objects she talks of as having histories to build these sculptures. Sort of like a forager of unnatural things, she uses the objects she’s amassed over the years to create these works. 

The viewer of her art is left to wonder at the masks and the objects beneath their surface in a very pointed look at how Canada interacts with those of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora living here. 

Are people being pushed to make masks to be understood, for their historical trauma to be processed?

To further this, Lewis has worked with RAGGA NYC in recently creating an exhibit at Toronto’s Mercer Union. She said she co-curated the exhibit with Christopher Udemezue, founder of the group. 

 “[RAGGA NYC] is a platform for queer artists, poets and performers of Caribbean descent,” Lewis said of the collection.” 

The gallery featured more examples of her sculptures as well as the work of many other up and coming artists of the diaspora. 

Lewis is going to continue to forge a path, creating striking works of art that leave the viewer to attempt to understand an experience that they might not necessarily share but can surely appreciate and empathize with. In other words, she is bringing humanity to things once considered inhuman.