Feature: Ann Lewis
- March 18, 2019
You should know this artist: Ann Lewis is famous for her impressive, politically charged installations and performances. The US-American activist artist deals controversially with topics such as social justice, women's rights, police brutality and environmental protection in her artworks and regularly causes a stir. One of her installations was even exhibited at the White House in 2015.
After her impressive installation at the internationally renowned art fair PULSE in Miami last December, she has finally become one of the most aspiring and worldwide respected artists. Her paths also crossed those of URBAN NATION in the past. Director Yasha Young invited her as a talk guest to a panel on "Art as a catalyst for community action" at the Scope Art Show in Basel back then in June 2018.
We met Ann Lewis for an interview.
Hi Ann, thanks for taking the time to do this little interview. Maybe you can introduce yourself to our readers. Who are you, where do you come from, how was your career to become one of the currently most aspiring urban artists?
Hi. Thanks for including me. I currently hail from Detroit but started making street art in New York around 2008. I consider myself an activist artist and focus all of my work on social justice or environmental justice issues. My practice now transcends the streets, and I’m often found doing installations and participatory performances.
At some points in your career your paths and those of URBAN NATION and director and curator Yasha Young have crossed. How did these encounters happen and how did they influence your career?
I met Yasha in Basel in June of 2018. URBAN NATION hosted a group of us to speak at Scope during the fair. We linked up again in the fall at Moniker where Urban Nation hosted Uncensored, a group of installations. That exhibition included my work "…and counting (Syria)". I’ve wanted to show this piece for years. My work focuses on challenging issues like war, rape, and police brutality so it can be complicated to find venues who are interested in having these conversations. As many know Yasha doesn’t back down from the truth, so she and I very much see eye to eye on many things. It’s emboldening to work with a woman who doesn’t back down and fiercely holds her ground.
One of your latest highlights was undoubtedly the installation at the PULSE Contemporary Art Fair in Miami in December 2018. In an article from artspace.com you are named as one of the 8 most coveted artists of PULSE. How did the collaboration with PULSE happen and what impact did this event have on you right now and on your artistic future?
A mutual friend introduced me to the fair's director. We were in talks to work together for a few months, and I was surprised when she chose my installation "One in Five of Us" to show at the fair. Surprised because the work is a visual representation of the statistic that one in five American women are victims of rape. Hanging that in an art fair, especially in Miami, is a bold move. These sorts of project happen when we have intersectional feminists leaders at the helm of our arts organizations. And without creating space for these challenging conversations, we don’t move towards solving them.
I think the impact on my career has yet to be seen. As an artist, I learned a lot about how this subject matter impacts people. I look forward to further exploring that.
You and the shown installation at PULSE caused a sensation. What reactions could you perceive to this installation on site?
I watched a lot of people walk away extremely uncomfortable. The #MeToo movement is in full swing in the US, and I was offering an opportunity for people to begin these challenging conversations. Often couples just walked through it wide-eyed and said nothing. It helped me realize that we as a culture don’t have the language to discuss trauma and these violations of our bodies. We must be willing to unearth these monstrous problems and deal with them directly instead of allowing them to stay buried, festering, rotting, and infecting us all. It seems there is much more work to be done in this space. The work will continue to evolve to better support the healing and growth of our communities.
Your work is very political and very critical. Unfortunately, we live in a time full of conflicts of various kinds. What are you focusing on right now? What annoys you the most? What inspires you? What can we expect from Ann Lewis in the near future?
Oh god, I could be here forever. Lol. Currently, I’m focusing on a significant environmental concern of single-use plastic. The EU just banned single-use plastic which is a massive step for the planet, but the majority of the world still consumes and disposes it without understanding the severe ramifications to our planet and ultimately to us. The work will eventually be a chandelier of 33,000 bags which represents how many bags are thrown away each second on our planet. That’s about a trillion a year. It’s a socially engaged work that invited community members in the various cities in which I will work to bring in their pile of unused bags and help tie them to the multiple strands of the chandelier. I will take the project around the country and maybe the world. The piece will grow as more people contribute to it. While much of my work can be controversial, I think this is an idea that most people can get behind.
As an American woman, I am severely frustrated with the Trump Administration. I’m watching him appoint judges that believe in the sterilization of trans people, and others who are profoundly racist and misogynist. It’s been a long moment of reckoning for the country.
I look forward to a day when he is no longer in power. The work doesn’t stop there, but the compounding stress that is occurring in people across the country due to his malfeasance is palpable and unsustainable.
With all of this chaos, there are also a lot of things that give me hope. As our communities continue to process and heal from infinite layers of societal misogyny, colonialism, racism, homophobia, greed, and destruction this virulent overvaluation of the oppressor’s place in society is beginning to decompose. The life force brimming from those who have been exploited for centuries, or millennia, is continuing to find its power creating seismic shifts in societies all around the globe. This shift is visible, and powerful and social media is giving it great strength. I am inspired by so many that are no longer willing to stand by and let the status quo continue. Activism is growing very strong in the US, and so many different communities are activating and seeing that they can change institutions and societal structures through organizing.
I currently have a large solo exhibition at Emerging Collective in Atlanta on view until April. It’s a comprehensive documentation of police brutality in the United States. In terms of upcoming projects, I will be completing a 500’ mural at the Pittsburgh International Airport this spring. It’s an interesting project as I’m creating the piece on the ground with reflective thermoplastic instead of paint. We’ve got half of it down and are just waiting for the spring weather to break so we can finish the rest of it.
I’m also tinkering with light and interactivity in my studio practice.
And last but not least: Will there be another collaboration with URBAN NATION soon-ish?
I do not doubt that Yasha and I will continue to work together. Nothing yet is in the works, but I foresee something compelling and engaging will happen when we find time to come together.