Lyle Ashton Harris’ decades-long career spans a range of practices, including photographic media, collage, installation, and performance. His unique works aim to recalibrate our cultural awareness by teasing but never fully giving into viewer’s expectations. Harris discusses just how influential his time in countries like Tanzania and Ghana has been to his personal life and creative pursuits.
Rachell Marie Morillo : Having spent time in both Africa and the United States, how would you describe the connection between these places?
Lyle Ashton Harris : Issues of culture and politics/empowerment have always been at the heart of my experience on the Continent and in the US. I was fortunate to live in Tanzania with my family in the mid-70s as part of a post-Civil Rights wave of African Americans going to do service. Being there during my childhood has been invaluable to both my work and personal life. When we returned to the Bronx, our house became a sort of cultural hub in exile: there wasn’t a week we weren’t hosting meetings with African students, politicians, and members of the African National Congress, like my stepfather. By providing a safe meeting place, my family was able to forge and nourish connections between Africa and the US, fulfilling the dreams of my grandfather who was a race man in the tradition of Du Bois. Decades later, as part of my tenure at NYU, I travelled to Ghana to help establish the University’s campus in Accra. I was most active as a liaison between NYU students and Ghanaian communities, using art as a bridge between multiple cultural contexts.
R.M.M : How has moving between these spaces influenced your understanding of history and identity?
Living in Tanzania, an all Black, African country, whose independence was spearheaded by Julius Nyerere – who centralised culture and politics – introduced me to the plurality of identity at an early age. Coming from a racialised, class-based culture like the one I experienced growing up in the US, it opened my eyes to concepts of ‘ujima’, or collectivity. I also came to have a different understanding of the construct of race and the relationship between whiteness, blackness, and the body. Being in a space that was not as conservative about nudity – where a naked form was not always sexual, as in makonde sculpture – allowed me to move away from the Judeo-Christian norms I learned in the US. I started exploring these elements early on in works like “Americas (Triptych)” 1987-88.
This work visualises some of the spiritual diasporic connections some studies are starting to compare.
R.M.M : Can you speak a little bit about your most recent work, ‘AKA Daddy’?
L.A.H : The death of my biological father triggered a memory of participating in the Asante funeral rites of my ex-partner’s father in 2010. My inability to participate in my own father’s funeral led me to think about how grief can be processed collectively. By layering my personal grief onto that of my partner’s, I was able to tap into the connections between highly demonstrative displays of grief, both in the United States and in countries like Ghana. Given how akin the funeral rites I documented were to practices in AME Churches, this work visualises some of the spiritual diasporic connections some studies are starting to compare. It explores my interest in the Black body, memory, and afterlife.
An article by Rachell Marie Morillo
Featured image : Lyle Ashton Harris, Untitled (Red Handcuffs), 2017. Prints and multiples, dye sublimation print on aluminum, 114,3 x 86,36 cm. Maruani Mercier Gallery.
This article was written for The Art Momentum | AKAA Paris Artpaper. [French version inside]
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