Q&A: Lyle Ashton Harris on his Kennesaw State University show and his love affair with Ghana

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Arts ATL
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March 22, 2013

By Dinah McClintock
Lyle Ashton Harris  in  his exhibition,  “Accra My Love” at the Zuckerman Museum of Kennesaw State University

Lyle Ashton Harris in his exhibition “Accra My Love” at Kennesaw State University.

Lyle Ashton Harris explores identity, desire and masculinity in modern-day Ghana in the exhibition “Accra My Love,” at the Zuckerman Museum of Kennesaw State University through April 24.

Produced in conjunction with the school’s “Year of Ghana” program, the show comprises photographs, collage and video from the artist’s seven years of partial residence in that West African country, exploring the confluence of traditional Ghanaian life and contemporary Western culture through a lens that is both personal and political.

Harris, who grew up in New York City and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, came to prominence in 1994 when Whitney Museum of American Art curator Thelma Golden included his large-format Polaroid pictures of friends, family members and himself in poses and guises challenging racial and gender identity in her seminal exhibition “Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art.”

Harris expanded the performative aspect of his photographs in his photomontage series “The Watering Holein 1996. Struck by the similarity between a magazine ad showing controversial French soccer star Zinedine Zidane having his leg massaged by a young black male and Édouard Manet’s once scandalous and now iconic 1863 painting “Olympia,” Harris expanded his photomontage practice to include media clippings and pop culture ephemera in his 2004 “Blow Up” collage series.

Lyle Ashton Harris: "Blow Up"

Harris’ “Blow Up.”

After a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome, Harris joined the faculty of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. He has directed NYU’s Global ArtSites Program in Ghana since 1996.

ArtsATL spoke with Harris about his new work and his experiences in Ghana.

ArtsATL: Although from the very beginning your photographs engaged issues of racial and gender identity, early work such as your “White Face” series from the late 1980s has been characterized as “modernist” in a theoretical sense. In what ways has your more recent “Blow Up” series, employing the methodology of collage, shifted that modernist trajectory?

Lyle Ashton Harris: In my early work a lot of information got distilled into a single photograph. What happened with the emergence of “Blow Up” was a formal shift from an iconic image to the accumulation of images. There was less of a hierarchy with the images, whether they were found newspaper clippings, media images, postcards, ephemera or some of my early photographs. It opened the space of what was prioritized and categorized, and became much more about a multiplicity of images, ideas, possibilities and interpretations.

ArtsATL: Tell me about the “Jamestown Prison Erasure” series of photographs of walls that you discovered in the Old Jamestown Prison in Accra, on which inmates had pasted various pictures and media clippings.

Harris: I became very curious about the redemptive power that creativity played in the lives of these incarcerated men. Furthermore, I became intrigued about how they gained access to their materials. How were these collages affixed to the wall?

ArtsATL: And between your first discovery of these wall collages and your return a few months later, some of the images had been removed?

Harris: I’m not sure if they fell off or were removed by custodians. They left behind a compelling ghostly trace.

Lyle Ashton Harris: Untitled (blue field), 2010. C-print mounted to Dibond.. Collection of the artist, courtesy of CRG Gallery, New York.

An untitled (blue field) C-print by Harris from 2010. (Courtesy of CRG Gallery, New York)

ArtsATL: The wall photograph with images of automobiles deployed across a corner [above] is fascinating.

Harris: It’s fascinating to me having lived in Ghana off and on, residing there for several months each year for the last seven years. In 2011 the World Bank declared Ghana officially a middle-class country. I’m interested in tropes of modernity and consumerism, in what it meant for these incarcerated men to be imagining freedom, picturing life outside. The act of collaging functions as at once an aspiration on their part and also a critique of consumerism. The act of the prisoners is in some way redemptive, but implicit in that is a critique of the class-based culture that exists among the Ghanaians themselves as a former British colony. . . . Not so dissimilar from here. In the United States there is a very distinct emerging wealth, and a car suggests a certain kind of lifestyle and status.

ArtsATL: What brought you to Ghana in the first place?

Harris: I was asked in 2005 by the vice provost of NYU Global, Yaw Nyarko, if I would consider teaching in Ghana for a semester. A year after that I was invited to go to Ghana to help start an art program there as part of the recently established study-abroad program. It’s one of the many global sites NYU has.

I was initially just going for a semester, but I really fell in love with the culture and the extraordinary people. A year later I established an art center in Accra, called the Dei Centre. In 2007 I met Seth Dei and his wife, who are major collectors of Ghanaian and West African art, and made the introductions with NYU and became the director of the new center. For the last five years I’ve been doing academic programming for the collection, putting the collection in context, and organizing symposiums.

For example, we did one on collecting and conservation in collaboration with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, for which we had Ghanaian artists who are working internationally come back and do presentations and workshops. We’ve had collaborations with the French and Spanish embassies in Accra and recently with the Tate Modern, as well as visits from Alisa Lagamma of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, El Anatsui and Bisi Silva, director of the Centre of Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria. Over the last five years the Dei Centre has emerged as an international arts organization, and it is part of an emerging vital art community in Ghana, which is amazing.

ArtsATL: Do NYU students take classes there, along with Ghanaian students?

Lyle Ashton Harris: Untitled (red silhouette), 2010. C-print mounted to Dibond; ed. 1/10; 30. Collection of the artist, courtesy of CRG Gallery, New York.

An untitled C-print silhouette by Harris from 2010. (Courtesy of CRG Gallery, New York)

Harris: In the Dei Centre itself we have NYU and Ghanaian students. We’ve done exhibitions including contemporary photography, where photography is still questioned as art, per se. In 2010 I collaborated on a show with the well-known Ghanaian photographer Nii Obodai and French-Algerian photographer Bruno Boudjelal. It’s been a great experience.

I was spending my fall semesters in Ghana, but now I’m actually going to be spending more time in New York, because a lot of things are going on for me here.

ArtsATL: The title “Accra My Love” obviously suggests that you have affection for the people and culture of Ghana.

Harris: It’s multidimensional. It’s personal, it’s cultural, it’s academic. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, invited foreigners from the beginning. As you know, Ghana became independent only in 1957. Accra is very international, and scores of people have fallen in love with it. There’s a certain easiness about life there, and it can be very relaxed and calming. Obviously it has its own challenges that are addressed in the collages, but there can be a lush kind of life there and a certain comfort. It’s great to be part of a culture that is emerging. It’s great to be immersed in the culture, but I’m also a visitor.

ArtsATL: You’ve spent time in Rome. What you’re saying reminds me of the Italian expression “va bene,” which also reflects a relaxed attitude.

Harris: There is something very similar about Ghanaians and Italians, a certain quietness of life. Both can be combustive and high-energy, but there’s a certain type of informality. Italy and Ghana can be very formal, which has its negative and positive side.

ArtsATL: Do you find that Ghana is a very traditional culture in many ways?

Harris: It’s highly, highly traditional in a lot of ways. That said, there are so many contemporary combustions pushing through that, rubbing up against that. Clearly along gender issues there are traditional roles, but most recently in the national election the two minor parties both had women as vice presidential candidates.

Harris talks to students at "Accra My Love"

Harris talks to students at “Accra My Love.”

ArtsATL: In his essay “Lyle’s Images,” Kwame Anthony Appiah refers to an official proclamation that homosexuality violates the culture and morality of the Ghanaian people, but he argues that the official government position does not reflect the feelings of the Ghanaian people. Have you found resistance to the overt gender issues in your work, or to your own openly gay identity?

Harris: Yes and no. I have the privilege of having an American passport that guarantees some security. But that said, I am always hyper-aware of the environment. Even in New York there are certain neighborhoods, certain times of day, when one has to be aware. It’s complicated.

Since that essay was written in 2007, so many things have shifted in Ghana. I think the culture is in transition, and when any culture is in transition, there is going to be opposition. It’s a very traditional culture and a very polite culture. I’m an American who is visiting, from the outside, but my sense is that through certain acts, such as their respect for elders or their respect for the dead, they value tradition.

Coming from an African-American background, I understand the importance of tradition and continuity, cohesiveness, and that in itself has been a challenge. I am clearly one for the expansion of that sense of tradition. For example, in my case, as opposed to thinking that because I’m queer my subjectivity lies on that side of the community, I’m interested in expanding the notion of what the community is. It’s through the individual within the community that things are allowed to shift.

ArtsATL: What you say brings me back to your “Blow Up” series and your collage method. You combine individual photographs in an accumulation, like a community, that shifts and opens up new meanings and relationships. Appiah commented that it makes perfect sense that you are in Ghana. Perhaps your collages are the perfect vocabulary, or medium, for Ghana?

Harris: Maybe the perfect strategy. In the “Blow Ups,” for example, a lot of things may be upsetting to one person, and then that same person may be comforted by a sense of the familiar. They may be confronted by something disturbing that appears on a piece of newsprint, which is part of an established daily newspaper, but at the same time comforted by an image of a very traditional Ashanti funerary cloth, or a very intimate photograph of a woman mourning her uncle. And so I think its multivalent in its meanings. Depending upon where you are and your entry point into the collage, through the multiplicity of images, something is going to counter your initial perspective, and I’m interested in that level of engagement.