Gentrification. Immigration. Women’s rights. Police brutality. These are just a few of the politically charged issues that artist Ann Lewis boldly tackles through murals and art installations. Exploring themes of American identity and justice, The Detroit-based muralist and activist has garnered plenty of media attention for her bold, often uncommissioned takeovers of public space.
Tell us about your style.
My work doesn’t necessarily center on one type of style, but more so it seems to always center around the concept of justice. Depending on what the topic is that I’m focused on, the materials will tend to lend themselves to something that’s concept-specific.
Why do you focus on social justice?
I always get this question, and I never have a good answer. Maybe it’s because I’m the baby of four and I always felt like life was unfair. [Laughs] I feel like if I'm not having a conversation about what's happening in the world, people affected by bad decisions or poor leadership, then maybe I'm not doing my fair share.
I recognize I have privilege because of my skin color. And being able to be an artist is a privilege in its own right. So I do everything I can to harness my talents and line of work to help people or communities see the reality of our circumstances.
Artist Ann Lewis. Photo credit: Laurie Markiewicz
What do you love about murals and public art?
I started as a street artist, so I’m used to taking measures into my own hands — at first because I thought nobody was listening to what was happening. But over time, I realized that public art is the most democratic means of artmaking. You don't have to spend money to go to a museum. You don’t have to know where to go. It just literally exists within the public space.
I spent many, many years in Bushwick, Brooklyn. I watched firsthand my community completely change because of all the murals that were going up. And I was part of that gentrification, without really realizing that I was contributing to it. So, recognizing that public art has the opportunity to support and empower people — but also has the means to gentrify communities — is something I spend a lot of time thinking about.
You have to decide — is it worth it? Is it not? Am I positively contributing to things? Or is it just a paycheck? Sometimes that’s OK and sometimes it’s not OK.
Photo courtesy of Ann Lewis.
How much does that level of social consciousness play a role in the projects you choose?
There are definitely artists out there who are like, “This is my business. I’m here to make money.” But not a lot of artists think that way. They’re not always thinking about themselves. They often have their eyes focused outwardly. It’s definitely more apparent in Detroit. Detroit artists are very aware of where they're making work, and for whom, and why. It’s a very thoughtful community in terms of artists, specifically in the public space. In Detroit, they’re using murals to beautify areas. But again, that discussion of displacement is very real.
Artists are always in a space of gentrification — it’s a very grey conversation. There are so many different shades. What constitutes beautification and supporting the community? What contributes to the displacement of people? I think artists here are doing it more thoughtfully than in other places.
Coming from the New York scene, I saw a lot of artists who were like, “Yeah, I’ll work with developers!” And they’ll paint a 30-storey mural and get 30 grand for it. I don’t know a lot of people who would say no to $30,000 dollars, but you need to understand what the real cost is. A lot of people don’t know how to calculate that.
Define Progress is an ongoing project highlighting issues around the gentrification, corporatization, and displacement of communities. Lewis’ custom barricade tape calls attention to recently closed small businesses and residential buildings that are being emptied to become luxury rentals. Photo courtesy of Ann Lewis.
Why did you move to Detroit?
My partner got a job offer in Ann Arbor. I was really interested in living in Detroit because of the vibrant arts scene. After living in New York for 12 years, it was time to see what else was new, what else was out there. Detroit is far more complex than anyone realizes until you live here.
What do you love about the city?
The sense of community here is something I wasn’t expecting, coming from New York. You walk down the street, and everyone says hello to you. There’s a sense of, “I can help you out — we can take care of each other.” There’s a sense of communal support that exists in Detroit. In a lot of big cities, people keep to themselves. They don’t look you in the eye. They don’t say hello to you when you walk down the street. People fight for each other here. They support communities and keep the conversation focused on what Detroit is, instead of what it’s supposed to be for people who come in to develop it.
What are some of the issues that are important to you and your art right now?
Immigration reform is huge. I just did an installation for Detroit Art Week. It's entirely made up of the emergency blankets they are giving children and people crossing the Southern border. It speaks to the “us versus them” mentality, which is very prevalent in America right now. People have been here for hundreds of thousands of years. Yet we’re telling them they can’t cross a line in the sand or a river because they don’t belong, they don’t have the right paperwork. That, to me, is a very pressing issue.
Women’s rights. I’m appalled at what’s happening in Michigan for women and our access to reproductive health rights. I’m working on a couple of projects for next year that are fairly significant and will be challenging. That’s not just a state issue - it’s a national issue. I’m horrified. I think our rights are being walked back.
Mass incarceration and police brutality are two things that I will always lend my creative mind to. I did a project in 2016 where I wrote a toe-tag out with all of the specific information — name, age, where they died and circumstances in which they were fatally interacting with police. I saw firsthand every single story. Every single death, every single interaction. It changed me in a way that I wasn’t really prepared for.
... and counting is an ongoing, interactive installation that presents the facts around each police-involved death in America during 2016. Photo courtesy of Ann Lewis.
Tell us about your I vote because... mural. What inspired it?
Voter turnout here is always low because a lot of Michiganders don’t believe in our democracy. They don’t believe it’s not already rigged. They think their vote won’t matter. There’s also so much around voter suppression that’s mind-blowing. So I thought about what I could do to shift things.
I partnered with the ACLU to promote voter registration on-site during the mural festival [Murals in the Market], using the consumption element. I figured the people who are going to be taking selfies in front of murals are going to be millennials. Or they’re going to be kids who are just coming out of high school and aren’t registered to vote. It was about giving them the opportunity to recognize the necessity of participating in our democracy.
Photo courtesy of Ann Lewis.
I could have made a beautiful, cool mural that didn’t say anything. But I feel like using all the tools that I have, including public art, to support our democracy and engage people, is incredibly necessary.
Just creating a two-dimensional work of art isn’t enough for me anymore. If it isn’t engaging the community, it tends to be a backdrop for somebody’s selfie — which couldn’t be more useless. I’m not here to make decorations. I’m here to change things.
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