Lyle Ashton Harris on Basquiat, Black Panther, and Afrofuturism’s Queer Roots

Lyle Ashton Harris on Basquiat, Black Panther, and Afrofuturism’s Queer Roots

Antwaun Sargent for The Vulture - 14 November 2018

Lyle Ashton Harris’s solo exhibition, “Flash of the Spirit,” at Salon 94, features 12 medium- to large-scale, Fanonian self-portraits. In the images, the artist, in the nude wearing various West African masks, transforms himself into an enigmatic figure in lush landscapes, engaged in a spiritual performance. Some are filmic, Afrofuturistic images of saturated abandon and contemplation that seem to conjure the past and future as a way to make sense of the present. For Harris, central to the gestures these images capture is the question: “What does it mean to take my own figure and act out?”

Over the course of his three-decade-long career, Harris has experimented with self-portraiture and masquerade to toy with expectations of race, gender, and the hegemonic white gaze. He created his first photo series Americas in 1987, at the height of the AIDS crisis, ajavascript:void('Paste')nd a few years later, his follow-up “Constructs” was included in the Whitney Museum’s landmark 1994 exhibition “Black Male.” In these black-and-white portraits, Harris in white face and a peroxide blond wig against a traditional studio backdrop, shows us what it means to have a body that refuses to behave. He purposely fails at gender, race, and sex, appearing in agony and ecstasy. In doing so, he makes a point that the 19th-century black poet Paul Laurence Dunbar said: “We wear the mask.” Harris’s art asks, “When will it end?”

Throughout his career Harris, 53, who was born in the Bronx but lived for a period of his childhood in Tanzania, has examined the ways that community, history, tradition, and desire shape his subjectivity. More recently, he’s taught and worked in Ghana, which has further influenced his work. In this show, which also marks a return to self-portraiture after nearly 15 years, he is interested in probing a new set of questions that deal with aging, family, and imaging black queer identity as a part of African Diasporic history.

What is it about photography, the medium, that drew you to it and keeps you engaged with it?
I’m not sure. Maybe it’s something about all the truth and veracity of photography, which has obviously been disputed, but there’s something about the verisimilitude. The idea of the document is something I find deeply sustaining; the ability to be able to, not only have it function as a document in terms of capturing impulse, but also its ability to reimagine identity. I am also fascinated by the apparatus of photography in its most violent sense. In terms of the role it plays in constructing notions of beauty and how that rubs up against, let’s say, the allure of seduction. What has been fulfilling is the ability to be able to take part in that dialogue, reimagining what could actually be.

This new series, “Flash of the Spirit,” is your first self-portrait series since 2002. What took you back to self-portraiture?
“Flash of the Spirit” became an opportunity to really think about what is important to me today. I had to reconsider what self-portraiture meant for me at 53, particularly on the heels of doing, “AKA Daddy,” the project about mourning I presented at Participant, Inc. This [consideration] coincided with me receiving a promised gift from my uncle: a mask. It is a golden Goli mask from the Baule people. It is a beautiful object and something about the mask transported me back to being a young teenager, growing up in the Bronx and visiting my uncle where I would see this mask. His daughter and I were very close, and it reminded me of when we were in college and how we would go to clubs like Area, where we met Basquiat the first night we went out there. It was the Wednesday before he had the cover of the New York Times magazine barefoot. He brought about a hundred-dollar bottle Champagne and offered us some. With the mask, all these memories came back.

Your history with the self-portrait is legendary. There’s the early “Americas” and “Constructs” series that was shown in the landmark Whitney Museum exhibition curated by Thelma Golden; “Black Male,” that changed the way we think about masculinity and the black queer male body. 
The idea of self-portraiture for me is about embodiment and what it means to reimagine the self as a way of looking at the past, to deal with the present as ways to think about the future. As Essex Hemphill said to me early on, it’s not self-portraiture for the sake of doing the portrait itself. The [image] becomes a figure or entity through which I can deal with a series of experiments. “Constructs” registered so deeply with people, not just because it was me per se, but because it’s a black man, a figure, enacting various gestures. Some are playful. Some are confrontational. There is almost a rupture in notions of masculinity.

“Constructs” for me is really an implicit critique of Mapplethorpe. 
I would say there’s definitely an engagement.

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Lyle Ashton Harris, Zamble at Land’s End #2, 2018.