Art on Paper

July/August 2004
Vol. 8, No. 6 July, 2005
Lyle Ashton Harris at Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris

Joe Fyfe

Lyle Ashton Harris at Nathalie Obadia Gallery, Paris

Lyle Ashton Harris’s recent exhibition in Paris-his first in that city-was influenced by Petrine Archer-Shaw’s book, Negrophilia: Avant-garde Paris and Black Culture in the 1920s. In the book, Archer Shaw revealed how the myth of African culture, its “primitivism,” was appropriated by modern artists in tandem with the formal properties of African tribal objects. This stereotype was reinforced by black entertainers who portrayed themselves as primal, sexualized, and/or decorative creatures. The complexity of this watershed era was that it was also the dawn of greater social mobility for Africans and African-Americans as well as the beginning of the end of colonialism.

Reading the book and reliving the effects of cross-cultural misreading is a saddening experience, and this seems to be reflected in Harris’s recent work. His Polaroid self-portraits portray an abject black body held captive by the projective gaze of European culture, as in Better Days #4, where he appears surrounded by the accoutrements of early-2Oth-century Parisian modernism. He wears an African mask (another is in the foreground), and holds a large phallic paper snake between his spread legs, which are clad in fishnet stockings. He wears spiked high heels. Paper money and empty bottles of fine wine litter the floor surrounding him as a large dog surveys the scene.

In one series, he also impersonates Josephine Baker, the African-American dancer and premier Parisian entertainer of the era. In these images Harris wears a belt of plastic bananas, part of a costume Baker wore in her role as Princess Tam Tam in her best-known film. Here, as in all the images, Harris attempts to recapture the authorship of “Negrophilic” sexual power as he uses aspects of the imagery for his own erotic play. The success of the work is predicated on Harris’s ability to keep the provocative mechanisms buried in the material from overpowering the work, and he does. The images seem to slowly reveal themselves, as if propelled toward the surface from deep within a theatrical chamber.