Published in Upstate Diary Issue #15
Lyle Ashton Harris has had a knack for being part of groundbreaking exhibitions from a young age. In 1989, in just his second semester of the MFA program at the California Institute of the Arts, Harris worked on a groundbreaking series called Constructs. This work was selected for the pioneering exhibition, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, curated by Thelma Golden at the Whitney Museum. The exhibition marked a seminal moment in art history and Harris was one of the show’s bright stars.
This was Golden’s first museum group exhibition, and she conceived a show about race, but not all of the artists were of the same race, ethnicity or gender. It was a hallmark for greater museum inclusion. Before the show had opened, audiences made up their minds: perhaps equal parts applause and pointed opposition. Debates spilled out through the museum doors and into mainstream media (see YouTube for Golden on Charlie Rose). Amongst all the heavy-hitters of the day: David Hammons, Adrian Piper, Lorna Simpson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andres Serrano, Robert Colescott — here was a young Harris, standing tall with all the bravado in the world.
This was the early 1990s. It was the second wave of AIDS activism. This was ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power], Visual AIDS, and their “Day Without Art.” This was friends and family, sadness and smiles, enduring stigmas, time not promised, being together, longing to feel secure. Artists were motivated by urgency. This was the height of “identity politics,” and the art world was shaped by conversations on race, class, gender, and sexuality. And few were more faithful to the time than Harris.
Four photographs: two forward-facing, two from behind, Harris nude or nearly nude in the solitude of a studio, floating in the space between a crude backdrop and the camera. He wears a dancer’s top that strains to reach his belly button, and a lengthy piece of tulle luxuriously flows from his waist like a dancer’s tutu, except where he rolled it up, revealing his penis. Hand on hip, his eyes overwhelm us. This was unmediated queer visibility, and Harris was steadfast in his brinksmanship.
Harris grew up in the Bronx. After his parent’s divorce, his mother felt the call to be in service to Africa. From the age of nine to eleven, he lived with his mother, Rudean, and brother, Thomas, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She was a chemistry teacher and took a job working for the Ministry of Education. These years were defined by their English-speaking international school and vacations around East Africa.
Back home, his grandfather was a prolific shutterbug, photographing family, friends, and members of the AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church throughout the 1940s. Harris inherited his grandfather’s Leica camera and an archive of over 10,000 slides, when he passed on. This life was almost seemed preordained. For his first solo show at Jack Tilton Gallery, in 1994, The Good Life, Harris interspersed his prints with archived prints reproduced from his grandfather’s archive.
Soon Harris would be creating an archive of his own. The Ektachrome Archive [Ektachrome is a range of Kodak films that produce distinctive color while using fast shutter speeds.] began in the late 1980s and continued into the early 2000s, with no hierarchy in the images. No linear narrative, no linear timeline. He let the camera act as his memory as he chronicled life as a young, Black, gay artist. It became a daily ritual, almost a reminder of being alive. He shot through time and space. Along the way, he captured the culture of the ‘90s: Glenn Ligon, Renée Cox, bell hooks, Samuel R. Delany, Essex Hemphill, and Fred Wilson. He committed himself to shoot real life and fantasy, togetherness and isolation. He saw into the rest of the world’s blind spots and slowly created a portrait of a time.
After more than a decade, he accumulated 3,500 slides and countless hours of footage. Now Harris serves as the archive’s custodian, one of many. It’s not an easy job. Harris explained, “When you think about what the Ektachrome Archive did for me, I didn’t expect to create an archive for what it meant to be a young artist. Taking the photographs was my entrée, my ticket in. The shift was to somehow protect it, have those images emerge into an archive, and then have those same images be drawn on now as a visitation from the past. For example, when the New Yorker published a photograph of bell hooks on the occasion of her passing, they used a photograph I took of her and Marlon Riggs. Now, that’s interesting to me, so what is the cost of that mentally?”
I keep thinking about the weight he holds as the steward of this collection. For Harris, the intimacy of these photos reflects his lovers, mentors, members of a chosen family. Often with these prominent public figures, his photos serve as our memories.
Between 2005 and 2012, Harris primarily lived in Ghana, working as a professor at NYU’s Global program in Accra. He remembers arriving at the airport and seeing a sign notifying visitors that Ghana still practiced British-derived penal codes, making consensual “buggery’” punishable with up to 3 years in prison. He described getting through customs in “professional drag,” with the need to exude “professorial” so as not to be checked at the border.
For seven years Harris had a partner in Accra, Prince Marfo, an Ashanti grandson of the village wife of a former president of Ghana. He invited Harris to view several Akan Ashanti funeral rites. Harris was gripped with the funerary fabrics. It’s the norm for Akans, an Ashanti meta-ethnicity, to hold a body for weeks or months at a mortuary. At the same time, the family handles preparations, such as extravagantly designed custom coffins, the shroud, music, and publicity. The wearing of special funerary clothes extends the public participation of mourners as a communal display. Custom dictates who wears what, from elders to close family members (dark red or vermilion), and dark blue-black cloth for the widow. Unlike the conclusiveness of funerals in the West, in Ghana, processions can last up to three days and nights and are meant to show the passion of those that left us. Throughout his time in Ghana, Harris accumulated two chests worth of cloth and several pieces of vintage Kente cloth.
Harris and his partner became engaged but, when Prince could not come to the United States, Harris returned alone. The collection of cloths sat untouched for many years. In 2017, he unlocked this archive making a new series of mixed-media assemblages that combine photo collages layered onto the vibrant West African fabrics. The Shadow Work series, which will be the focus of a solo 2023 traveling museum show, is an opportunity to honor the aftermath of that love. The works are mesmerizing meditations of personal, political, and transatlantic histories. Within the frame, Harris embedded personal mementos; he was making memorials created to depict private moments shared. Harris pulls from multiple histories for the collages, flatting time by digging back into the Ektachrome slides, mixing them with newspaper headlines, family snapshots, and handwritten notes. Images are combined into dense clusters, sometimes repeating, so we see them as recognizable. The time Harris spent in Accra coincided with the emergence of anti-gay zealots. These conservative American pastors lost audiences in the United States but found welcome ears in Uganda and Ghana. Suddenly there were issues of feeling safe. The Shadow Works are abstract; they are vulnerable and confessional, and they invite us to collectively grieve the end of a great romance.
For many of us of a certain age, our memories exist solely in a shoe box, tucked neatly behind a nightstand or the dusty levels of a bookshelf. Our memories are far from public and it’s seldom, if ever, that others feel welcome enough to insert themselves into our remembrances. I mentioned to Harris that there is a loss of mystery, a blank spot in a friend or lover’s diaristic timeline with everything going digital. He pooh-poohed it, saying that artists like Nan Goldin or Larry Clark are highly public yet remain a mystery. It’s true. I look at the rawness of what they captured and wonder what happened just before — or just after. A single moment can never tell a whole story. But perhaps that is why so many continue to connect with Harris’s work. This generosity lets those of us who couldn’t be there in person peek behind the curtain. He told me of a collector that recently said they felt they could leap into the image itself. Harris explained that it’s “formally how the images are staged or are caught, they document certain experiences. And there’s a whole… But within that, there’s an entry for someone. So, in a way, it’s a departure from hermetically sealed, studio-based work, where the fact that they are either landscapes or interior spaces allow other participants to enter into it.”
One of the things about this kind of invite is that you never know who is watching. Who would be dazzled enough with the life to take that leap? It got me thinking about family trees. With Larry Clark and Nan Goldin, the roots were watched by Harris and Wolfgang Tillmans, who gave the structure of a solid trunk. The younger branches flourish upwards and outwards with names like Zanele Muholi, John C. Edmunds, Shikeith, and Paul Mpagi Sepuya. As Lauren Haynes, the Senior Curator of Contemporary Art at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, phrased, “I think Lyle’s influence on a younger generation of photographers can’t be overstated. He opened up this pathway, and you see many artists following in his footsteps while charting their path. I think Lyle’s role as a mentor and a professor will have as lasting an impact as his artistic career.”
With all modesty, Harris mentions he takes as much from younger artists as they take from him. Still, it can be difficult being the elder statesman. His Once (Now) Again, 2017, consisted of selections from the Ektachrome Archive and were shown in that year’s Whitney Biennial. Originally he was hesitant to include a video the curators wanted. “That is surprising, to be confronted with certain aspects of the self, which I had forgotten. I just felt it was so difficult seeing myself as being young and unabashedly open, but maybe this generation is much more accepting. It’s curious, but it’s always interesting to see oneself. My perception of myself may be harsher than the real, liberatory objection in which I was engaging. So, I think that now I’m able to look back and see there are traces of possibility.”