A Look Through His Camera’s Lens
LYLE ASHTON HARRIS
LYLE ASHTON HARRIS is every man. He’s a cousin, a best friend’s brother, the most dedicated member of the church choir, even a best “girl” friend. And his art parallels his development as a gay person, Black man, artist, American and member of the family of man.
In Italy, Harris and his art represented America’s best last month at the Venice Biennale, the oldest and most prestigious art fair in the world, where Harris also was a judge in the first- / ever Africa pavilion.
Along the way to such lofty heights, there were early mixed media collaborations with his older brother, Thomas Allen Harris. Then came photographs like the American flag-draped snow queens and the white face heroine of the 1987 America’s Triptych series. There were examinations of stereotypes and profiling about pride in spite of pain. There was confrontation and in-your-face flamboyance with the tulle tutu, blond-wigwearing protagonist of the Whitney Museum’s equally sensational 1994 “Black Male” group show assembled by the legendary curator Thelma Golden. These led to the even more “out,” full-color portrayals of Black historical figures delving into racism, misogyny, homophobia and heroism.
By the mid-1990s, huge sepia-tone Polaroid portraits engaged viewers in an ever-evolving conversation. These “chocolate” portraits that cost five figures have led to a steady stream of portraits of the obscure, the talented and the renowned. Crossing back and forth between fine art and commercial commissions, Harris has photographed a variety of subjects from President Bill Clinton to Missy Elliott.
“The thing about Lyle is versatility.. .inserting himself at the right time in the right place to get once-in-a-lifetime images,” says Franklin Sirmans, curator for contemporary and modern art at the Menil Collection in Houston.
The new millennium began for Harris with a fellowship to the American Academy in Rome, where he further broadened his world vision. “Now,” he says, “I could see how similar and how different I and all Americans were from the rest of the world.”
He could see how Black history and attitudes had intersected, influenced and been influenced by other cultures. Best of all, he could see how his own past provided tools for navigating and inhabiting the bigger world outside America and his family.
Harris was born in 1965 as part of an illustrious African- American lineage that the “mainstream” media rarely glimpse or acknowledge. His maternal grandmother, Joella Johnson, was a missionary and his grandfather, Albert Johnson, was the treasurer of Harlem’s Bethel A.M.E. Church. Johnson, a photographer of more than 10,000 slides of family members, was also “race man” who studied with famous scholars and was a systems analyst for the Port Authority of New York/New Jersey. Harris’ mother, Rudean, is a chemistry professor who, after dworcing their father, took young Lyle and his brother to live for several years in Tanzania during the mid-1970s. Harris’ late stepfather was a translator at the United Nations and his older brother, Thomas, is an award-winning fine art filmmaker and photographer on the West Coast.
Although Lyle traveled a path of low self-esteem and addiction for many years, eventually his cosmopolitan upbringing, family love, respect for education, overriding ambition and talent triumphed. He went to Wesleyan to study economics but dropped out because “it just did not feel right.” He left to live with his brother, who was working on a postgraduate degree in Amsterdam. Fortunately, a photography class provided the “eureka” moment that made him realize where his heart really belonged. He went back to school, where he excelled in his studio arts undergraduate courses and later earned a graduate degree at Cal Art in Los Angeles.
Today, Harris teaches at New York University, where he is now the university’s first “global artist” working as a professor in Ghana. In that country, Harris lives and socializes in the rarified world of society’s elite and leaders. “In a place where my subsidized rent is about $2,000 a month, most households pay $300 a month,” Harris says. “So I spend time with the ‘regular’ folks at the marketplace where I often go to photograph.”
Harris has brought the art world from America to conduct workshops and programs for the fledgling art community in Ghana.
But enough about Harris. What about his art? Well, it is often about … him. Harris, in fact, is his favorite model, the self-referential stand-in for his personal, societal or political views. The photographs reflect what the culture is saying about its values and how he mirrors or inhabits those values. Recent works examine the extremes of violence, both inflicted by society and self-inflicted via his embodying the character of Billie Holiday, juxtaposed with that of a very battered and bloodied pugilist. “The boxer expresses the militaristic vision of masculinity perpetuated in the Black urban community that almost annihilated me and is killing too many,” he says. “What is feminine and what does masculine mean?”
Living in Ghana half the year and the time he spent in Italy woke him to just how huge soccer is outside the United States. Articles about the racism of its European fans, hurling epithets and beer bottles at star players from the African Diaspora and a commission to photograph Silvio Berlusconi, the former president of Italy, caused his filter to begin reading the cultures. So he interviewed some of those soccer stars and pulled out his Nikon along with his Bronx persona to negotiate and photograph the riotous crowd of thousands in a stadium in Rome.
For his installation, he has taken over an entire wall with a full-scale photograph of that same upscale-looking crowd of soccer fans. He has been reading an Italian theorist, Elias Canetti, and is fascinated by how crowds empower its members to act out in ways they never could as individuals. Yet for all his ease with the rich and famous and familiarity with the medium, surprisingly, Harris, in many ways, is a common man. Stripped of costumes and artifice in front of the camera and no longer in control behind it, he is just as uncomfortable and distracted as anyone can be in those highly exposed circumstances.
Cheryl R. Riley is an artist and furniture designer whose award-winning work has been commissioned by cities, museums, corporations and celebrity collectors throughout the United States for more than 25 years.