Tau Lewis spent years amassing her personal collection of seashells, which she harvested over the course of a series of trips to Jamaica, the island nation where her father was born. She was attracted to the shells that were most weathered—the ones that had rolled around over and over in the tide, and washed ashore in a new, sanded-down form. When she found them, many of these shells still had a briny odor, a pungent reminder of the depths from which they came.
Lewis has always been fascinated by oceans. In a recent Zoom interview, she recounted a story her father once told her about diving in Jamaica. One of his friends had plunged down to reach a freshwater pit at the bottom of the sea and never came back up. After two days, his friend’s body was located and hauled to shore, filled with snails and stones in its orifices. She called the ocean in Jamaica “extremely haunted.”
Because the shells have wound their way into her pieces in the past, it’s no surprise that her artworks composed of found materials have taken on a similar quality. She described her sculptures using the same terms a medium would to recount a vision.
“I consider them to be portals,” she said of her most recent works. “They’re vehicles for communication, you know. I’m not afraid of ghosts. I’m not interested in the idea of ghosts or spirits as malicious or scary things. I think that that’s actually a point of view that’s very dangerous 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 and fabric hung on the walls—are now on view through January 7 at 52 Walker in New York. Their mask-like forms loom over viewers’ heads, staring out in a way that is either confrontational or inviting, depending on the work. Some spill forth with sewn flowers; others are composed of twists of fabric that coalesce to form skin or hair. As Lewis herself put it, laughing a little as she did so, it’s “the most Tau Lewis work” she’s made to date.
Lewis has been mounting memorable shows like this one for the past few years, and curators have begun taking note. As her work has expanded in scale, her star has also risen. She recently exhibited similar mask-like sculptures at the Venice Biennale, where they presided over the Arsenale, and she also has sculptures in an ongoing show about the Black Atlantic in Brooklyn Bridge Park. In the coming years, she will have solo shows at 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 yet turned 30.
According to Ebony L. Haynes, the dealer behind 52 Walker, Lewis’s work has gained a following because she has already engineered such a distinct style. “She’s really created a language that’s all her own,” Haynes said in an interview.
Almost all of Lewis’s sculptures have involved the use of found materials, whose multisensorial qualities delight her. The fabrics she hoards come from thrift shops, donations, and chance encounters, and she keeps them in bins in her studio. She does her best to preserve the fabrics in the state in which she found them, so that they look and smell as they did before they arrived at her studio.
“I have this emotional attachment to all of the material, especially leather,” she said. “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 reason, she encourages anyone who enters her studio to scrub their hands thoroughly, so as not to bring in the smells of cigarettes and food enjoyed outside. (The finished works themselves often have a pleasant odor, and in the first days of her current New York show, a leathery aroma wafted through 52 Walker. “When we first unwrapped the works, it smelled like a leather factory,” Haynes said.)
Sculpture with an outwardly handmade quality is becoming increasingly rare these days, and that’s one reason Lewis’s work stands out. She sews her work without the use of industrial machines—“I’m very analog that way,” she said—and this much is obvious based on the uneven stitching. By laboring over the process on her own, Lewis develops a stronger connection to her materials.
The fabric always “has these little characteristics that you can’t control, which is my favorite thing about it,” she said. “And it’s just full of secrets. It starts to reveal itself to you.”
Likewise, Lewis seems to have no problem revealing aspects of herself to those around her. When we spoke, her mother was days away from being given a medically assisted death. (In Canada, where her mother lived, euthanasia is legal.) Lewis did not shy away from this—she is not afraid of talking about death. “I have a pretty good temperament with this kind of stuff,” Lewis said. “I’m not reactive. I’m not highly emotional.”
Twenty minutes later, she was calmly recounting her experience as an artist. Lewis was born in 1993 in Toronto, and twice she went to school for journalism. Both times she dropped out, and she does not have the M.F.A. degree an artist her age may be expected to hold.
Many have pointed out that Lewis is “self-taught,” a fraught term that has been applied disproportionately to Black artists. But as critic Tiana Reid has written, although Lewis did not attend art school, she received her education in a less conventional way, through the close study of her creative inspirations. She even at one point met up with the Atlanta-based artist Lonnie Holley, whose assemblages have frequently been compared to Lewis’s sculptures. Yet Lewis has resisted attempts to construct a tidy creative lineage for her work, once telling Momus, “There will always be things about blackness and experience that are simply not knowable, or to be captured or bought.”
Something similar could be said of Lewis’s sculptures at 52 Walker, which are beguiling and not easily legible. You can admire them for Lewis’s craft, but the longer you stare, the less they seem to reveal about themselves.
While working on this show, titled “Vox Populi, Vox Dei,” Lewis had been reading the work of Nigerian playwright Wole Soyinka, whose productions often involved the use of Yoruba masks intended to represent deities bearing messages for a given community. Then her research took a sharp turn when she became engrossed in studies of angels.
She read philologist Nora Kershaw Chadwick’s 1952 book on the subject, Poetry and Prophecy, and studied texts such as Islam’s holy book, the Quran. And she grew obsessed with angel numbers, or sequences with repetition that are believed to offer spiritual guidance. Given that these numbers began appearing to Lewis during the decline of her mother’s health and amid a surgery of Lewis’s own, she wasn’t sure at first whether they signaled something good or bad to come.
Lewis pressed on anyway, considering the unusual layout of 52 Walker’s space, which she ultimately decided she would transform into a venue for contemplation. Utilizing false walls arranged in an octagonal form, she aimed to evoke a spiritual space. “I wanted to make a temple,” she said.
Standing inside the show, it is not hard to understand why Lewis conceived it in this way—you can step right up to her sculptures and commune directly with them. “They become like presences in the space, the more you live with them,” Haynes, the 52 Walker dealer said. “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 last sculpture produced for the show was Mater Dei (2022). Positioned near the reception desk, it is the only sculpture here that seems to have hands and feet, and perhaps for that reason, it feels as though it’s the most fully formed being on display. Its lips are pressed together into a slight smile—it knows something you don’t—and its title, which translates to Mother of God, hints at its epic 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 said. “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 the works, Lewis said, “I still feel like they are trying to carry me through.”