For Amani Lewis, the portraits are much more than a likeness. Mapping inner landscapes of beloved subjects and layering materials that speak to a true human essence, they portray a lived experience and spiritual being, weaving together the personal and ancestral. Amani leaverages their work to help friends gain momentum, supporting them through kinship, honoring them in multi-faceted, sparkling light. Explaining the seamless connections between their art and community in Baltimore, the artist explains: “My work exists because these people exist.” These portraits are not commodities, but catalysts for change and healing.
Kristin Farr: Art school changes everyone, and your years at MICA seemed pivotal. Now, almost five years later, how do you reflect on that time?
Amani Lewis: Being a student at MICA was pivotal in the sense that It brought me closer to a city I knew not too much about. It taught me how to build relationships with new people, and It helped me understand the importance of having and supporting your community. Although I feel like we created a bubble within the city, it was my first step into taking initiative and doing what I wanted to do in this new community of mine. It also gave me the space to just explore and talk out various ideas or concepts with my peers and work out the issues at hand. It was also a time to build relationships with my forever friends, Murjoni Merriweather and Joanna Nanajian, who are amazing artists themselves, with a focus on identity and culture. I don’t really look back at those times, but when I do, it is the engagements that I remember the most, and the foundation of my work, which was created while holding the hands of my peers during a time of hardships, police killings and unrest.
What do you like about using photography as the basis of your portraits?
Something that I’ve learned by listening and researching artists like Brice Marden and Hank Willis Thomas is that the photograph often does this beautiful thing of capturing an exact moment that cannot be repeated. It holds that moment as an archive and frames that moment with intention. I also started adding a border around my painting because I like the idea of containing the viewer’s eyes within the frame so they’re not wondering what happens outside of the image, but focus on what happens within.
Tell me about all your different materials.
The portraits I paint have to do with following the lines and characteristics of my subject’s body that makes them the person who they are—while also mapping the lineage of that person to the likeness of a topographical map. In my series Negroes in the Trees, I talked about migrations from the traumatic and inhuman treatments that were happening to black people in the south, to places like Baltimore and further north, where they sought refuge. That tracing of their footsteps lies in the blood and the features of all black people today. So it made sense to me to compare migration and lineage to the mapping of natural landscapes, as they are intertwined. My materials consist of tangible and intangible objects like paints and glitter, but also the realities of my subjects and the stories they wish to share.
Is there a standard process for laying down each of those many layers?
I start with a reference photo of the subject that I’m going to paint. That photo gets digitally drawn, altered, manipulated and then gets printed on canvas as a digital collage. After that, I add different materials, such as acrylic paints, pastels, and glitter, especially, to build up the image. That’s pretty standard for all my pieces. I am now going back to my printmaking techniques to add a screen-printing process that will make the canvases pop even more!
Do different materials have different symbolism?
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