By A. M. Weaver
Upon examining Michael D. Harris’ works, I realized they were like pages from a memoir. His imagery is analytic and sleek in design, yet there is a quality of sentiment about them. Harris watching his girls grow-up realized treatment of their hair marked the transition of years. His observations of women in particular and their hair are pivotal aspects to the oeuvre presented in his exhibition, Equal Rites. A presentation delineating rights of passage, civil rights and rituals that mark a transition and a specific point of time in a life.
'Rootscape' by Michael D Harris
Race matters in Harris’ works as he explores the various hues of blackness in What Are You?: For Colored Girls Who Are Cornered, 2008. The Blackberry, 2008 portrait takes a racialized epithet about color and explores its ramifications in sequential filtered images of a dark girl’s smile. It is obvious that color is an issue even in 2011.
Harris is caught between worlds here trying to mitigate the color line within the black community. “What are you…” raises the question of origin or hue in its diversity--Atlantan; Ethiopian; Brazilian; Irish African American; Californian; Jamaican, Scotch, Puerto Rican; African American" , while Blackberry singles out the adage “ Blacker the berry….” that is all too well known and may reinforce the stereotype associated with darker women. Her story has yet to be told in full—the weight of it and anguish.
Harris gives his black “Mona Lisa” a half smile, yet her eyes are eliminated from the frame and the focus in on her broad nose and full mouth - the mouth, the lips coveted and at the same time ridiculed. This is a woman of a certain age not an Aunt Jemima type, but a dark-skinned woman whose plight has been explored, in part, through the writings of bell hooks and Michelle Wallace.
Bill Duke and D. Channsin Berry’s recent documentary about dark African American women is a compilation of sorrowful tales of rejection and self-loathing. It nearly brought me to tears hearing my darker sisters telling their stories out loud. At least Harris gives his dark lady a smile in the midst of so much pain.
I collect stories of black girls and can attest to my mother’s stoicism, Barbara Chase Riboud’s lament when her Great grandmother murmured “too dark” as the absolute wound, Miss B’s aggression and attitude of a conquistador when it comes to men, and Nina Simon’s Peaches. No black woman remains unscathed when it comes to color; remember the tragic mulatto and the women of medium hue, who are perceived as stepping stones.
The beautifully filtered portraits in Color Struck serve as signifiers/markers of attitudes shaped and molded in slavery. Willie Lynch proclaimed in 1712 to a group of Virginia slave holders, “I HAVE A FULL PROOF METHOD FOR CONTROLLING YOUR BLACK SLAVES. I guarantee every one of you that, if installed correctly, IT WILL CONTROL THE SLAVES FOR AT LEAST 300 HUNDREDS YEARS…” We have suffered in the aftermath.
Harris toys with these signs and elements of word play and a tongue in cheek stance are at times apparent. Does he offer a salve or provide a mirror reflecting a caste system that we are slowly overcoming? In the work “Kevin”, Harris professes to engage irony by incorporating the 1918 cover of sheet music by Harry Carroll, “They’ll be Mighty Proud in Dixie of Their Old Black Joe” - a minstrel tune reflecting the alleged patriotic sentiment of blacks during World War I.
The irony in "Kevin" by Michael D. Harris
Next to the tract are a large yellow filtered image of the artistKevin Cole and the text “Post Black”. Juxtaposed on the left is Kevin’s solarized portrait aligned with smaller snapshots of progressive and iconic images of blacks and the word Black in parenthesis. How will black audiences read the dichotomy? Is this billboard-like work successful in offering a critique of what is considered post black? Or does it feed into the mines laid byMichael Ray Charles and Kara Walker!
All this refers back to Harris’ book “Colored Pictures”, which started as an essay and evolved into a manuscript published in 2003. A confluent exchange with Ken Goings, a history professor at Ohio State University, whose publications include Mammy and Uncle Moses: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping (1994), was a catalyst to Harris’ investigations in prose and graphic form of black stereotypes. These works intended for black audiences serve as cathartic devices and are infused with diagnostic and personal responses to being black in America.
Starting as a painter, Harris received his MFA from Howard University in 1979 and more recently, shifted to photography as a means to construct a virtual studio. He lost his actual studio space in 2000. Prior to that his signature work was based on mixed media shrines and constructions, this led to the creation of reliquaries using paint and photography.
A seminal work, Shaman: Seso the Prophet, 2011, is indicative of this style. Modern day altars for contemporary living, “Shaman” incorporates a large portrait in golden tones of the poet Anthony Fudge, who wrote a book based on the idea of a spiritual journey. Obviously shared thoughts and life challenges are implied; Harris and Fudge have been friends for forty years.
Below the portrait is a triangular chest of drawers that resembles a large metronome. There are spear-like extensions that protrude from the sides of the structure and at the base the entire unit sits on sculpted equid hoofs. Minimal in its presentation, this work has a futuristic edge marking the passage of time - a conceptual testament to a visionary. Harris’ Imagery is personal and evokes an intimacy, documenting people that he knows, and alluding to places that he’s been.
A collaged and painted work on Barbados is representative of his travels to the island and the quest to render paradise in a tangible realistic way. Removing its inscription of fantasy giving it a history rooted in slavery and representing generations of lives lived there through photographs and antique post cards, he states “I use a creative voice, giving pictorial credence to my familial and personal experiences”. Thus marking his innumerable trips to the Caribbean and Africa and poignant commentary on African American issues and culture.
Several of his series feature women, yet his take is not a voyeuristic one, but a view that implies an intimate understanding and regard. I asked Harris if he was a feminist; he chuckled lightly and we engaged in a discussion on feminine percepts as evidenced in the work of Betye Saar, Renee Stout, Alison Saar and Marie Johnson.
His hair-based series began in 2004; this fascination with all types of black hair feeds into his philosophy that a woman’s hair and or hairstyle communicates her history. Rootscape equates dreadlocks and a free style ponytail with the branches and exposed roots of mangrove trees from Barbados. The care of black hair is a multi-billion dollar industry in the US and I would imagine a substantial enterprise anywhere where black women are.
However, let’s not underestimate the importance of hair in American culture at large. It is a huge issue brunette vs. blond and the warring factions continue. In reference to African American women it’s a matter of full luxurious locks and length. For the B-Girls, the Rapunzel look is all the rave and with older women the weave, curly and straight hair are options. I can’t get over how black women finger and sweep hair that isn’t theirs in such a self assured and alluring manner; I guess a gesture served with attitude is all that matters.
Harris tends to use the deadlocked woman’s hair as a metaphor for cultural roots. He literally contrasts locks with tree roots. And adorns the hair in the piece Oshun with feathers, beads and butterfly to symbolically represent the qualities of that deity. “Oshun”, a bricolaged triptych, represents the three wives, of the Yoruba God of thunder and iron Shango, Oba, Oshun, considered the principal wife and Oya.
Incorporated in the work is a handcrafted fan which suggests theabebe of Oshun. An antique chest of drawers laden with emblems associated with Oshun includes gift-wrapped packages a mirror, candles, soap and vitrines. Oshun is the epitome of feminine beauty and harmony and considered the mother of all. A goddess, associated with the Oshogbo River, whose place in the pantheon of Yoruba orishas was one of the original 16 Irunmole and only female to be sent from the spirit realm by Olodumare (the supreme God) to create the world.
Harris makes use of an additive process. His layered accumulation of paint, marks such as, Amharic script, collage and found objects on photographs, presented within a conceptual framework is subtle and direct. Harris has found a way to mediate between the private and the public, masculine and feminine, giving glimmers into his psyche and should I say “soul”. Harris charts the journey of a life, its struggles, challenges, quest for knowledge and spiritual fulfillment through his graphic insignia—photographs, installations and paintings—publications and innumerable lectures.
As a scholar, Harris makes use of every aspect of his studies and cultural analysis from his fieldwork in Ile Ife Nigeria and travels abroad to academic exposés on contemporary art. Worlds based on antiquity to living practices are explored in his three and two dimensional works. He bridges cultures from an Afrocentric perspective to construct syncretic paradigms.
His knowledge of Yoruba culture and Ifa divination is indicated in his selection of materials and clearly evident the installations Oshunand Shaman. His use of photography, a modernist design sensibility and subsequent forays in film place him on the vanguard of contemporary trajectories in a post black and post post modernist era.
In an epoch marked by pluralism, Harris capitalizes on the profusion of mixed means of expression. As a cultural broker, Harris’s autobiographical articulations are poignant displays of an Africanist and member of the 40 year old movement, AfriCobra, who revives and continues practices that are a part of a contemporary vocabulary inherent in work by many African American artists.
About the Writer:
A. M. Weaver, independent curator and art journalist, resides in Philadelphia, PA. She is currently working on several projects involving sculpture, photography and film from a feminist perspective. She continues to document the work of contemporary women artists and artists of color.