Untitled (Cape Coast)
For the past three years, Lyle Ashton Harris has divided his time between New York and Accra, Ghana, where he is a professor with New York University. In this exhibition, Harris debuts the work he has made in Ghana and as well as his first video installation. Created specially for SMoCA, “Accra My Love” includes three components that resonate together to present a dynamic and layered picture of contemporary Ghanaian life.
Harris’s large-scale Blow Up collages, initiated in 2004, have paved the way for this most recent project. The collage component of this installation includes Harris’s photographs printed on silk and presented among a carefully crafted array of objects he found in Ghana: painted signs, a tourist map, mirrors from his home in Accra and even a souvenir miniature coffin in the form of a rooster. In Accra, Harris had become fascinated by the culture around death, such as lively street festivals and the special ceremonial textiles and elaborately decorated coffins representing aspects of the deceased’s life. His assembled items hold personal meaning for the artist and also suggest a complex blend of African tradition and Western modernity (Ebony Magazine and Michael Jackson) in contemporary Ghanaian culture. Typical of Harris’s approach, he treats his photographs like any artifact worthy of interpretation.
The expansive mural Untitled (Blow Up IV Painting), 2008, is testament to Harris’s unique working methods. While on vacation at the beach in Goma Fetteh, Harris came across a group of fishermen using this large canopy sewn from flour sacks to shield them from the hot sun. Struck by the ingeniousness of this device as well as its compelling texture, imagery and scale, Harris convinced the men to sell him the canopy. Later, back in Accra, he decided to hire a sign painter to paint a version of his most recent Blow Up collage (Blow Up IV, 2006) on the flour sacks. Having the painter translate the collage imagery to the “canvas” enabled Harris to filter his visual language through another’s eye and hand, thereby minimizing his own artistic gesture and adding layers of meaning to the piece.
The concept of layering is central to the video component of the installation as well, with footage superimposed over a large-scale
image of Harris’s Untitled (Cape Coast), 2007, printed on panels of silk organza. This beach is home to one of biggest slave trade forts on the Ghana coast. Once a grim “holding tank,” today the fort is a major tourist destination. Projected onto this seemingly idyllic beach scene are views of the surrounding environment, traditional Ghanaian funeral festivals, as well as meditations on trees blowing in the wind. The dreamlike, layered imagery creates a poetic image-scape filled with a nostalgic sense of longing and suggesting the complex relationship contemporary Ghanaians have to history.
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