„It could be a small gesture, the way you lay your hand on something, or the turn of a head. I think it is through these little gestures that we read people. We constantly observe small things other people do that we don’t even think about, but they matter in how we perceive them.“
REPRINT: FRAGMENTED BODIES AND THE ASPIRATION OF MOBILITY
“Whiteness could be described as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space, and what they ‘can do.’” – Sara Ahmed
Phenomenology is a philosophy of experience. Sara Ahmed used the philosopher Edmund Husserl’s ideas to describe how bodies are directed by the objects that surround them and how the subject is formed through orientation. Bodies are shaped by the contact with objects; what gets near is both shaped by what bodies do, and in turn affects what bodies can do. By drawing on the work of Franz Fanon, Sara pointed out how different bodies come in contact with different objects, and how different bodies have different possibilities to move around in spaces to come in contact with the objects, which can form their subjectivity.
In Shannon Tamara Lewis’s painting Sometimes But Not Very Often, we see the tangled torso of two black bodies inserted in a luxurious interior. A chic low bed in light wood stands next to a teak table in the style of modern Danish design. The bodies of the women have almost disappeared in the space, as if they couldn’t fit; as if only parts of their bodies could take place in this room. They appear through a tear in time and space, as if they try to crawl out and inhabit the space of lux as seen in a glossy interior magazine, seemingly not theirs.
The conversation between Nora Arrhenius Hagdahl and the artist Shannon Tamara Lewis was first published in the current print issue exploring the discourse around ‚I,‘ which can be found in stores and ONLINE
Nora Arrhenius Hagdahl: How long have you lived in Berlin?
Shannon Tamara Lewis: It’s going to be 6 years in the Fall, but it feels like I just moved here yesterday. Berlin is always unfolding; I think that’s part of what creates this weird time dilation.
NAH: How come you moved there?
STL: I was living in London before, and went to school there. But London was just getting really expensive and a bit too hectic. It’s just hard to be a young artist in London, when you need to have the time and space to just try something out, you know.
NAH: And where did you grow up?
STL: I come from Toronto, Canada, but my family is from Trinidad, in the Caribbean, and I still have most of my family there. In the Toronto I grew up and lived in during the 80s, almost none of my friends’ parents were born in Canada. It was this mix of different cultures and new ways of being. I was in a generation of firsts, as our parents didn’t come from there. When you come from an immigration background, you are meant to find a stable career – that was the reason your parents moved in the first place. I never grew up thinking I would become an artist.
NAH: So, where did your interest in art begin?
STL: I always liked to draw, that was just my thing. I always had a sketchbook filled with comics I drew of the people around me. It was just fun for me and not something I imagined I was going anywhere with. But I had a teacher in high school that was really encouraging and told me I should apply for art school. I didn’t even know there were art schools back then; I’d never heard of it. Initially, I thought I wanted to do animation as I liked to draw more than anything else. So I went to this school that was a “pipeline” to Disney, where you had training in all the fundamentals of drawing. I think that’s when I started to realize that I was more interested in telling my own story. Animation was always more about transcribing somebody else’s ideas. It was the safer option, but what I really wanted to do was become an artist. So I applied to OCADU and did my undergrad in Toronto. Then I did my Master’s at Goldsmiths.
NAH: And how was that?
STL: Goldsmiths was really different from my education in Toronto. It was really rigorous and all about ideas. It’s a bit intense when you are in the middle of it, but if you come out at the other end, you are quite sure you want to do the things you’re doing, because you had to defend it so many times. It’s also a very conceptual school, so my choice of painting was constantly questioned.
NAH: How do you feel about being a painter now? For a while, painting wasn’t the most trendy medium, but really seems to be back in fashion. I think people are drawn to the more crafty arts again.
STL: I had this visiting tutor and gallerist that told me she only had painters because it sold, but that everything that could be done with painting already had been done, that it’s a dead medium. I think that position is not aware of the fact that there is a lot of bodies that haven’t been in paintings yet. It’s a very small section of society that has been represented in paintings so far, so there is a lot more that can be said. There are still so many stories we haven’t seen through paintings.
NAH: I believe contemporary art has been quite detached from the craft. Artists made film, photography or objects that could be mass-produced – all things that could be duplicated a million times by anybody. It became very common for artist to outsource production rather than making it themselves, which could be seen as some kind of streamlining of the making of art. Therefore, I feel like there is a kind of a resistance that goes into painting, or any other craft, for that matter. A painting could not be mass-produced and is not efficient in any way; instead, it takes a long time to make and can only be made by the artist himself.
STL: I think we live in a time when we want to reconnect with stuff that takes time. I think there was a time when we didn’t value that at all, but now we want to slow down.
NAH: Do you have a lot of joy in making?
STL: Yeah, I really do. It’s really a pleasure to paint to me.
NAH: I wanted to start by asking you about your latest solo show, Some She Recognizes II at Butch Cut in Berlin, even though it’s been a while since anybody has been able to show anything.
STL: I was working on these small paintings that would depict like a piece of skin, a hand or a piece of hair. I met with this curator that I went to school with. They were planning to open this queer residency social space here in Berlin, and we’d both been thinking about this idea of grooming and how that could be an expression of self worth. I was really into the idea that taking the time to take care of yourself and your body is something you do because you feel like your body has value. The exhibition was really about those little moments of self love and care.
NAH: I really like that idea. Often, spending time with a skincare routine or putting on makeup is seen as this shallow activity. It’s also been described as an activity forced upon women by society, as we shave and moisturize because we feel like we have to do so to feel beautiful. But, as you say, it’s also about being worthy of your own time, taking care of your own body and creating a relationship with it as something to care for. Looking at your small paintings made me think of photography. They have this snapshot aesthetic, like a frozen moment. Painting has a tradition of grand narratives, elaborated compositions and thought out poses. Your paintings feel more like a fleeting moment, which creates some kind of intimacy. How do you reflect on your own practice in relation to photography?
STL: I actually work mostly from photographs. I’m interested in the frozen moment, in the snapshot. As you said, painting is often about this big, posed and final moment. But, in life, there are also these in-between moments that photography tends to deal with. I really like to capture those moments, like a pose you wouldn’t normally see in a painting. It could be a small gesture, the way you lay your hand on something, or the turn of a head. I think it is through these little gestures that we read people. We constantly observe small things other people do that we don’t even think about, but they matter in how we perceive them. I want to capture those moments. For me, it is about the journey and the work you had to do to get into the final pose that is interesting. I’m always more interested in the before and after a staged image.
NAH: What is it about the in-between moment that is so interesting to you?
STL: Today, we are all meant to be this finished product and that’s how we present ourselves to the world. We never really speak about the work it took to get us there. I really want to talk about the work, the work it took to become who you are right now. I don’t think the labor should be invisible; I want to make it visible. I want to highlight how exhausting or pleasurable that labor can be. It’s more about the journey than anything else. You don’t have intimacy with a polished brand or product.
NAH: There are recurring symbols and imagery of luxury in your paintings. You paint these almost surreal environments and interiors of glamor, with signifiers such as high-end perfume bottles or beautiful, tall, posed black women in Louboutin shoes. Many of the scenes and details in your work looks like something that could be found in a glossy, high fashion, fantasy world. Why do you work a lot with these references?
STL: The easy answer would be that these are things that I love! [laughs] I like pleasure, and all these objects are a part of a fantasy world of mine. Growing up with an immigration background, there is a lot of aspiration and fantasy. It’s about moving from one class to another. I take all of these markers of wanting to move – beautiful interiors or items and the bodies in my paintings are always trying to float in and out of these spaces. It’s about mobility. Sometimes the bodies in my work fit in there, and sometimes they don’t. When you come from an immigration background, you are really aware of what you need to perform and how you need to act to fit in in different spaces; I talk about shapeshifting. My paintings are really about the work these bodies need to do to get there, what you need to project. Back to what I said about the moments of effort and trying – I want to capture the moment of that journey.
NAH: Regarding the bodies in your work – it’s like some part of the body fits, and another part doesn’t, so it can’t be there. You often depict these very beautiful, but broken, bodies. I thought a lot about phenomenology when I looked at your work. For me, the work is about how the ordering of spaces shape the way bodies move in them. It’s about how certain bodies can feel totally comfortable in one room, while other bodies are constantly hindered or disabled by how that room is organized, whether it’s through visible or invisible structures. You work is about the black female body in these aspirational, fantasy places. I think it’s very beautiful how you depict the limitations these rooms create for certain bodies – like, who can fit in there? Sometimes it’s just a hand or half a head.
STL: I tend to choose these spaces from architectural magazines or high fashion magazines and they are really stylized places. Sometimes they are so beautiful that they almost look like they can’t be lived in, like too beautiful to be real, in a way. This matches up with the idea that this isn’t the real world for most people. But even if you know it’s not real, you still sort of fantasize about it, and move towards it. And it’s about being feeling comfortable in these spaces. This definitely refers back to Sara Ahmed, phenomenology and the idea of orienting ourselves to “happiness objects.”
NAH: There is always friction between who you are and the space you’re in. A room can force you to change, and spaces can hinder you from expressing the full essence of who you are. That’s really how I read your work when I see a half face in front of a fancy wallpaper, as if you could move one part of yourself into this room and conform yourself to the situation, but not the whole you. There is no room for the whole subject, because that world isn’t made for the black woman, or any woman, really.
STL: I think not even the people for whom these spaces are made fit in there.
NAH: Because they don’t invite cracks, sorrow, flaws or anything that is not polished. These places are fantasy.
STL: Exactly. There is only room for this polished, thin slice of life.
NAH: You mainly work through the style of collage, a technique that helps you embody these places of fantasy, aspirational images and can create these clashes between worlds. You can mix and match however you want. Why did you start working with collage?
STL: I think my whole practice is collage. Collage, for me, is about the fragmentation of identity. I like taking one piece from here and one piece from there to create a whole, as I believe it’s the parts that make up who we are. No one is not fragmented and I want to embrace the fragmentation. I think fragmentation is an asset, not something to be overcome.
NAH: Do you want to tell me a bit about the process of making a work?
STL: I’m constantly going through images, online, in magazines, or I take pictures myself in real life. It’s not like I have an idea in mind of what I’m going to do with them, but more an image bank that I’m constantly working on. It’s all snippets of something, of a conversation, and then they come together when I find another piece they fit with. And then the conversation kind of becomes whole.
NAH: Who do you hope will look at your art? Who is it for? And what do you hope people take with them from looking at your work?
STL: My audience is definitely black women. I think there are things that they will get and read automatically from looking at my work. It’s kind of this way of speaking with each other. But I also think that there is a universal understanding of what I do. I like that other people would also find a way to understand the work that bodies do to get into these places. I want to play with people’s unconscious visual archive, make them investigate why they feel that certain stuff is familiar and other things are not. I want to make people pause. We are all in this vibe of “time is money” and “I’m this savvy consumer,” and I would like for people to take a break from that. I want to interrupt these moments.
Image Courtesy of the Artists and Mariane Ibrahim