That moment with a Shannon T. Lewis work can feel a bit like a haunting. You may find yourself questioning reality. Wondering if you are present within this world— or another? Shadows of the past emerge, while limbs of tomorrow reconfigure before your eyes. What is seen might be scorched with jolts of terror, maybe bubbling over with pleasure, or something in between. According to Lewis, all are exactly right.
With new representation from Chicago’s Mariane Ibrahim Gallery, Lewis pulls from ghosts all over the world, from her ancestors in Trinidad and Panama, to those on the pages of Vogue magazine. Weaving a wealth of strands, she explores the art of performance—when it is intentional, and when it is second nature. Her use of assemblage honors Black femininity, asserting the Black body with power and vulnerability in spaces too often regulated and structured. It is, in fact, beyond intention.
Lewis is ready to dizzy your head with questions. The answers may not be soothing, but the turbo spin will drive you into asking for more.
Shaquille Heath: Black person to Black person, how are you taking care and where are you finding your joy?
Shannon T. Lewis: This is a good question… I feel like that's what 2020 has been about. Like trying to find these pieces of little simple joys everywhere. And it's been like, a Zoom meet up with friends every week or a watch party. It’s food maybe… I just got back into Toronto and I just had a roti for the first time in, like, a year and a half.
[Laughing] Yeah, it’s like all the food of my childhood that I’m about to devour. It’s just the little things. Being able to go for a walk in the summer after being so cooped for a while—that all of a sudden became a special occasion.
You mention being holed up. You were in Berlin, right? What has it been like for you, working through Covid?
The first wave wasn't as bad in Berlin, so there was a little bit of the sense that it was happening somewhere else. But we had to stay home for… maybe two months? Then this summer was weirdly kind of normal. And now it’s back to not-so-normal. Right when I was leaving, everything shut down again.
Were you able to still have access to your studio? Or were you making work in your home space?
I thought that was what I was going to do. I was very ambitious. I brought home some canvases, and I was like–yeah! I’m going to make work during lockdown! And… it just did not happen at all. I couldn't focus. And it also felt like… the world is falling apart. Does it matter if I finish these paintings? kind of thing. And it really took a long time for me to replenish that energy, that creative energy. So, I really didn’t start painting again, I think, until, maybe August. And it took going back to the studio.
Being able to regain that energy, how were you able to channel it again?
I mean, it’s other artists, and looking at their work. Right before we shut down again, I was able to see some really great shows in Berlin. I saw Jenna Gribbon, this painter from New York that I love. I also saw this other show at Gropius Bau. For me, it’s film. It’s also music. It’s reading. I’m really big into fiction. I think a lot of my inspiration kinda comes from, like, Toni Morrison. I read Sula at least once a year. It’s just a spell that I need to stay on this earth. It’s those kinda things. I just read this Helen Oyeyemi book, Boy, Snow, Bird. That was just so incredible. It’s about the breaching of all these different worlds. I’m interested in anything that’s around those topics.
That’s what immediately struck me about your work, these different worlds that you produce. Worlds that exist almost mythically within themselves. Can you talk about that?
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