After Somebody Blew Up America: An Interview with Theodore A. Harris and Jonathan P. Eburne

Theodore A. Harris, Don’t Shoot the Caregivers, 2008, each panel 8 x 11 in. mixed media collage on board, triptych. Image courtesy of the artist.

When people ask me why do I turn the image of the U.S. Capitol building upside down in my collages,
as if it were a bomb, my short answer is: “It’s upside down because they’re upside down.”

— Theodore Harris, Hunted Everywhere: Collaging the Capitol, Manifesto (2002)

 

I first spoke with Philadelphia-based artist, poet, and educator Theodore A. Harris via zoom on the afternoon of Thursday, January 7, 2021. The previous afternoon, on January 6, thousands of Trump supporters had violently stormed the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, scaling walls and breaking through doors. Ostensibly the attackers were looking to overturn the November election results that would lead to Trump’s removal from office; their immediate aims were all the more disturbing, with white-supremacist mobs seeking out high-profile Democrats such as Nancy Pelosi and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, and even Trump’s Republican Vice-President Mike Pence, with violent intentions. The rioters, some of whom were law enforcement workers themselves, sported Confederate flags and Nazi emblems as they stormed the building, mugging for cameras and vandalizing the Capitol with graffiti such as “Pelosi is Satan.”

Theodore and I spoke the very next afternoon. This first conversion found us both stammering and searching for words—struck as we both were by the historical ironies of our discussion. The US Capitol building was not only in the news, but it also serves as one of the key iconographic figures in Harris’s visual art. Harris works principally in collage and assemblage, in sequences of formally and discursively related works. For each series he writes and publishes a conceptual and political manifesto; what such manifestos reveal is less the uncanny prescience of Harris’s work than its enduring testimony to the ongoing police state of the United States. “Whenever I’m watching the news on television being reported from the nation’s capital, Washington D.C.,” Harris notes, “the person doing the reporting always has the U.S. capitol building behind them, as a backdrop, set design, in the theatre of white supremacy.”1 Harris wrote this in 2006. But it resonates no less viscerally in 2021 than it would have in 1955, when, as Harris reminds us, Emmett Till’s mother Mamie Bradley climbed the steps of the Capitol building in search of justice for her murdered son. In a nation that has yet to outlaw lynching, the search remains ongoing, an open wound. As a testimonial-in-advance to the structural violences of the contemporary US in the age of Trumps, Derek Chauvins, and COVIDs alike, Harris’s 1995 collage, Vetoed Dreams (see below), features an overturned Capitol building and a young boy wearing a homemade facemask who gazes guardedly—or perhaps guardedly—toward the spectator. None of this, the image suggests, is new. What did you expect to see?

For Harris, the weaponization of whiteness calls for an art that seeks alternative weapons for cultural, spiritual, and bodily survival. His work seeks to provide his viewers “the strength to keep on, holding on to these fraying ropes of struggle,” as he puts it—mourning, testifying, but also mustering the cultural and emotional reserves of anti-imperialist struggle. These reserves draw from the Black Radical Tradition as from the poetry of Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Aimé Césaire, and David Diop; his images—whether in the form of individual collages or splendid, multimedia triptychs—are made of fire. As Baraka once described Harris’s work, “it is as if someone combined the sizzling social statement of [John] Heartfeld with the aesthetic penetration of [Romare] Bearden.”2

What follows is an edited transcript of two conversations about Harris’s art that took place two weeks apart in January 2021, where our conversation ranges from Harris’s interest in Afrosurrealism to his disarticulation of colonialism in his “Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism” series, which riffs on Martin Luther’s 95 theses and the haunting colonial presence of “Dutch Masters” in the iconography of tobacco and art criticism alike. As art critic John Heon writes in his companion piece to this interview, Harris’s “Thesentür” series (literally meaning “thesis-door”) makes profound use of verbal-visual riddles to expose the historical truths behind much of what is considered the highest and “purest” forms of art in the Western canon—and the canonical opinions about them.” With humor and beauty as well as with fire, Harris’s work confronts the legacies of colonialism and slavery in the contemporary “theater of white supremacy”—and turns it into a guillotine.

—Jonathan P. Eburne

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Jonathan P. Eburne (JPE): I’m not sure I’d call this serendipity; it’s more like historical irony. But it’s downright uncanny that we’re talking now, on the day after yesterday’s storming of the Capitol building, given all your work about the Capitol building as a theatre of white supremacy.

Theodore A. Harris (TAH): It’s absolutely nuts. I can’t believe this stuff I’m seeing. Jonathan, check out the draft of this manifesto, titled Broken Windows Theory for Broken Hearts:

Peering out from your “broken windows theory” we witnessed whiteness weaponized, invading the U.S. The Capitol Building like dangerous little tikes breaching a Bouncy House, aggressive paper boys and girls hustling fake news. Those anti-intellectual, formalist-hawks, gouged out the eyes of “blue lives matter” lobbyists, as they hopscotched in the chalk outlines of our vaccinated blood-yellin’, lying lungs barking “I CAN’T BREATHE!” from their maskless-gargoyle faces and the more they bounced the more hot air and blood spilled from the inflation tube of deflated consciousness…

JPE: Wasn’t it remarkable—or rather: here I am, remarking on it—to see the surprise of the media in reporting on this moment of “whiteness weaponized,” as you put it? As in: “Oh wait, the police have two standards?” And you’re thinking: really? I mean, it took storming the Capitol for you all to realize this?

TAH: Yeah, right, exactly. Wow. Wild. I was just thinking about that, given that one of my most well-known works is titled Vetoed Dreams.

Theodore A. Harris. Vetoed Dreams, 1995, mixed media collage on board, Collection Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Image courtesy of the artist.

JPE: It’s an absolutely arresting piece, and I’m hoping we can do a full dive into your work, which is really remarkable. That collage is from 1995, is that right?

TAH: Yes.

JPE: With the mask on and, and everything. I mean it’s… it’s downright prophetic.

TAH: Yeah. You could say it’s in the tradition of that work by David Hammons, when he reenacted a bound and gagged Bobby Seale; it’s titled Injustice Case (1970).

JPE: I wanted to catch hold of this moment and ask you: what did you think yesterday . . . when you were watching this all unfold? Did you think, “that’s what my work is about?”

TAH: Yes, and I thought about the artist John Sims, whose work my work is in conversion with. In his art, Sims stages annual “Burn and Bury” ceremonies for the Confederate flag, re-colors the flags, and hangs them from a gallows. His form and content are on point. Remember there were gallows erected outside the Capitol waiting for Vice President Pence, or anyone else opposed to overturning the election in Trump’s favor.

Exhibition view, John Sims’s “AfroDixia: A Righteous Confiscation” at the 701 Center for Contemporary Art. Photo courtesy of the artist.

It also reminded me of surrealism. Thinking ahead about our meeting today, I was thinking about one of [Salvador] Dalí’s paintings titled The Persistence of Memory (1936), where he has these ants crawling on a watch or something like that.And I’m thinking about these guys climbing the Capitol. It reminded me of one of Dali’s pieces, you know, and I was like, wow. I just went there for some reason. Just thinking about their trying to overturn the vote, and to overturn the Capitol. So we’re both trying to overturn it, but for different purposes.

Theodore A. Harris, Drowning in Bones and Flames, 2002, paper collage, Private collection. Image courtesy of the artist.

JPE: I believe this came up in the news coverage at some point, but it’s worth noting that this Capitol “uprising” is certainly not the same thing as occupying an administrative office. This is about keeping an authoritarian regime in place.The monster was already in the house, so to speak . . .

TAH: It’s amazing. Just to know that you could do that, and that you won’t get hurt or even care about getting hurt, is astonishing. Just astonishing. I wouldn’t call it bravery; I would just call it gall. As my mother would say: the unmitigated gall. I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s just astonishing to me.

JPE: Can you say more about how this astonishment might have to do with your reflection on surrealism—and the way surrealism may or may not have left an impression on your work as a poet and visual artist, especially in your work with collage?

Theodore A. Harris, On the Heel of Famine, after Tony Medina, 1998, paper collage. Cover art for Exceptional Violence: Embodied Citizenship in Transnational Jamaica by Deborah A. Thomas, (Duke University Press) 2011. Image courtesy of the artist.

TAH: I’m glad you brought this up, since nobody’s ever talked to me about surrealism as far as my work is concerned, so it’s really interesting. It made me think back.

When I discovered [Aimé] Césaire—I guess it was through that big book that Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith edited and translated. And I just was like, whoah. And so I started reading other Négritude poets. And, I guess. . . I just kept going and going. . .

I tried to teach one of Césaire’s poems in a class with some youth I was teaching for paroles and stuff. It’s a poem of his called “Word,” and he’s talking about all the different images that come when you say the word “n—” [nègre in French]. Well, all the different images that word conjures up. And this is an astonishing poem. And I tried; I was teaching that. That comes to mind. And then the influence of the poetry is there and the manifestos the surrealists wrote and, you know, reading Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism against Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s Decolonising the Mind, and, you know, Baraka’s Revolutionary Theatre Manifesto, and it gives you ideas.

So when I write, it’s mostly because I can’t . . . or when I’m working on a series, I may write down ideas as I’m doing it and then they turn into poetry. So there are two things going on at the same time simultaneously, and I take the writing as seriously as I take the visual art. And when I teach art, I try to teach poetry as a visual art and visual art as poetry. So people can understand that you’re creating images with words.

JPE: Could we go back to what you said about teaching Césaire’s “Word” poem? How did that conversation go? I mean, I’m curious to hear what kind of approaches you took. Also: when was this—did this take place recently?

TAH: This was years ago. And I think the person I was working for, my supervisor, didn’t like it. Although she didn’t come out and say that, because she couldn’t say that; it wouldn’t have made sense. I was trying to show these young people that a person my age, when I hear that word, this is what I think about. You know: lynchings, police brutality, people not being able to live where they want, people being restricted, all that stuff that comes with that. But what do theysee when they hear that? When they call each other that? So, I was trying to talk to them about the way we think about it generationally, you know. And Césaire’s poem is so visual, and the allegory that he creates with his words, it’s just astonishing. In the manifesto Hunted Everywhere: Collaging the Capitol, which I think was the first manifesto I wrote, and which I presented together with Amiri Baraka at Haverford College, I happened to leave Césaire out of a litany of artists such as Sonia Sanchez, David Diop, Audre Lorde, and many others “who taught me how to maximize the power of the metaphor,” but he’s there.

I think the Hunted Everywhere manifesto was my first real public lecture that I did with Baraka. That was our first one together. I think it was my first University talk as well. And so the program meant that I would talk first and show images and then Baraka would come the captions to the projected collages he wrote about. I know that when I was giving my talk, I was tapping on the lectern because I was nervous. I was tapping with this pencil. I’m not in the videorecording of the event. They might have cut me out for that reason.

The poet Amiri Baraka reading the caption he wrote for the collage Remember Eric Smith, 1999, by Theodore A. Harris. Haverford College 8-8-20. Still image courtesy of Aaren Perry.

JPE: Oh, I’m sure that’s not it. I’m sure it was just because Amiri Baraka was speaking, and they
were, like . . .

TAH: Later for this guy.

JPE: [Laughs] Anyway, go ahead.

TAH: In the Hunted Everywhere manifesto I also cite the David Diop poem, Poem for a Black Child [Enfant noir], which has to do with Emmett Till. And so I tried to use surrealist poets and poetry in my work as much as possible. And then the last thing I did, as I was showing you, was an installation I did at the University of Pennsylvania. David McKnight, who runs the Kislak Center there for rare books and manuscripts, he had bought a collage from me for the center titled Our Prizefighter, Paul Robeson (1998). Through this, we got to know each other, along with John Heon and Michael Taylor, who are two of the co-founders of The Philadelphia Avant-Garde Studies Consortium . . . You know about it?

Theodore A. Harris, Our Prize Fighter Paul Robeson, 1998, mixed media collage on paper. Collection of Kislak Center Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of the artist.

JPE: Yes! I’m on the listserv.

TAH: What you’ll see on my website, in the Thesentür section, is a 2019 piece called After Aimé Césaire for an installation I called Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism series in Conversation with the Henry Charles Lea Library. It involves a mask in a bowl, an idea that came from a line from Césaire’s epic 1939 poem Journal of a Homecoming [Cahier d′un retour au pays natal]. But that line. Of course there are great lines in the poem. But when I hit that was “but does one ever kill Chagrin, as fair as the startled face of an English lady who peers into her soup tureen to find a Hottentot skull?” I was like: oh, man. I wrote that down. I highlighted it. And I didn’t know what I would do with it. But I knew I had to do something with it.

And so when David McKnight asked me to do an installation, to do some type of exhibit at the Kislak Center in the University of Pennsylvania Library, I asked him: Can I use that fireplace? I didn’t think he was going to let me, and I didn’t have a soup tureen, either. My friend, the artist Taji Ra’oof Nahl, got me a soup tureen. As for the Bemba mask, I borrowed a mask from the artist Danny Simmons, who then gave it to me, because he liked the installation I had mounted earlier at Rush Arts, which was titled after Ota Benga (1883-1916), a Mbuti man who was displayed at exhibitions, much like the “Hottentot Venus” Sarah Bartmann.

JPE: You didn’t already have a soup tureen? I mean, come on.

Theodore A. Harris and Taji Ra’oof Nahl. 2005 After Aimé Césaire/ghosts (Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism series). 2015, digital images, African mask, soup tureen, books, African stool. Installed at Kislak Center, University of Pennsylvania, 2019. Photo by Emily Brewton Schilling. Image courtesy of the artists.

TAH: I know. What’s wrong with me, right? And so, in other words, I was taking that line from Césaire’s poem literally, trying to find the images. So what’s in that fireplace is the African stool, two books, and a book called Black against Empire, which is a book about the Black Panther Party. And that Césaire book is part of it, too, but you probably can’t see it that well in the photo. So, there’s the soup tureen with the mask in it, and in the exhibition the fireplace is flanked by two Thesentür placards: Greenberg’s Forked Tongue (ghosts), on the left and 2005 After Aimé Césaire (ghosts), on the right. The next time I’m able to do that installation again, I’m going to find something that has to do with femininity, or a female sculpture or a mask, to get as close to that poem as possible. You know, the Hottentot Venus, and the Hottentot skull, I mean, it’s just astonishing, harrowing. What kind of mind is that?

JPE: It makes me think, again, of what happened when you were teaching the poem—how the Césaire poem went over with your students. I mean, thinking about these artifacts of hate and warfare. Literally, colonial warfare. One of the things that I think is really terrific about your manifestos—to my still limited knowledge of them—is that you really pick up the Césairean idea of what he calls “miraculous weapons,” that is, of approaching art as a kind of warfare. And, that’s a bit different, perhaps, than the ways in which a lot of young kids are being taught social justice—if they’re taught about social justice at all. Not, in other words, by the reclamation of vicious things. So the idea of Césaire’s “Word,” the body of the Hottentot Venus, the body of Saartje Baartman used so violently as an artifact to be displayed and . . .

TAH: Yes.

JPE: These sorts of hateful things make me want to ask you anew: what does it mean to have to work through hatefulness? That’s a hard road to take when dealing with teenagers. And I can anticipate the negative reactions from parents, supervisors. That’s one of the reasons I was asking too, but I also feel, for me at least, that there’s something about the way that your work resonates with surrealism and other forms of manifesto-based art and provocation-based art, such as Hans Haake and other interlocutors you’ve named. It’s interesting to think about the importance of not just replicating joy, which is hugely important work, but also working through the ghosts, so to speak. Which is something you’ve said about Basquiat: You’ve got to work through the haunting.

TAH: That’s a great title for a chapter in a book: working through the haunting. That’s great.

JPE: There’s another great line from your “Collaging the Capitol” manifesto about inverting the pentagon building, much like upside down Capitol in the collage. But here you turn the pentagon into a “wounded guillotine.” I was thinking about this in terms of that miraculous weapons idea, but also in terms of institutions, of critiquing the kind of institutional forms and forces that the US Capitol building houses. At the same time, I am really interested in people who are building things, and building counter-institutions in light of this critique. Thus, one of the things I want to ask you more about is the Institute for Advanced Study in Black Aesthetics you founded—and not just the aesthetics part, which I know you have a lot to say about, but also the Institute part, which is to say: teaching people, working through the haunting, fostering collectivization. There’s something really important about that. Césaire the poet was a teacher before he was a mayor, after all.

TAH: Right, right. Well, the idea for it came because Baraka was talking with Askia Muhammad Touré, one of the poets in the Black Arts Movement. During the Furious Flower Poetry Conference (1994), they were having a sit down talk; it’s on the web. And they were talking about institution building. Baraka said, we need an Institute for Advanced Study in Black Aesthetics. I’m like, whoa. I took that, and I thought about what that would mean. What would that look like? And so what I started to do was curate. I curated two exhibitions under the banner of the Institute. And I had two meetings with a group of like-minded people to see if we could actually build something with this. And then a friend of mine said, “Teddy, you should get a board of directors and all that,” and I was like, I’m not going get no damn board of directors that are going to kick me out of my own institute! [laughing] That’s what they do. No. It was actually my friend, the late arts writer A.M. Weaver, who said that.

So I said, well, let me just curate an exhibit. And the first one I did was “Surface Politics: Looking beneath Aesthetics and Formalism” (2010). There’s a video of that, too. I did that show, and it was really fun. It was fun because I treat the exhibition itself as an artwork; I’m sure a lot of curators do this, because we’ve got things playing off each other. One of the things I tried to do with that exhibit was to make it generational, so that the younger people were dealing with the veteran artists, and the latter could get to know who the younger artists are.

I only curate an exhibit when people are making work dealing with the subjects that I’m dealing with in my own work. I try to find people to deal with the same subject, but in different mediums—literature, visual art, of course. And then the second show I put on was, “Shut Your Trap: A Study on Authority in Art,” which was held at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia in 2012. Both of those, I think, were pretty good shows, and that’s the kind of work I see the Institute as doing. If I had my own space, I would have exhibits, I’d have my library there. You know, it would be a study center, where people can only come there and use the books; they can’t take them out. Or lay people that are just interested in art and want to know what it is, or for scholars writing books, the space will function as a public space. So yeah, that’s the idea behind it.

JPE: The decisions you’re talking about are really, really important: the project of having a discrete set of functions but with a physical space that is moveable or indeterminate, a shape that is plastic.

TAH: Yeah, when I did the show at the Asian Arts Initiative in 2012, I did that one mostly because of a national performance network, which started a branch years ago called the Visual Arts Network. They got all these different institutions together that also showed visual arts, as a test to see if they would want to get into the visual arts. And so I did a show at the Hammonds House Museum in Atlanta, Lady Pink did a show, and all these other different artists, most of whom I’d never heard of, did projects at different institutions. To make a long story short, they have a conference every year in a different city. Since I was part of the network, they were coming to Philly. And they were holding their main show at the Asian Arts Initiative, because AAI was part of their network. And I asked them to let me curate a show upstairs. It was a good way for the people whom I know, but who didn’t know about the network, to get hooked up with them.

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PART TWO (Two Weeks Later)

JPE: I want to come back to Vetoed Dreams, which you’ve recently had occasion to discuss in public since it’s part of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) collection, and since the museum just held a virtual symposium on “Reframing the Legacy of the Capitol.”  It strikes me, as a general overview of your work, that the Arna Bontemps line cited by Ishmael Reed on the very last page of Mumbo Jumbo exemplifies a quality of your work: “Time is a pendulum. Not a river. More akin to what goes around comes around.” I feel like your work is profoundly consistent in this way. Are you surprised that any of this is happening?

TAH: Yeah, it’s weird, very weird. Just reflecting each other: at a certain time, you think you’re just doing something, then the next thing you know it’s reflected. I just happened to be looking on the PAFA website. And I saw an announcement for this topic: “Reframing the Legacy of the Capitol.” What to do? I’m thinking to myself, well, are they going to use Vetoed Dreams, which is in their collection? To me it was logical. And I didn’t see that on their site. So I emailed Anna Marley, PAFA’s Curator of Historical American Art, and I asked her about it.

I sent her two triptychs [including Postcard from Conquest, below]. And she said, oh, she was glad to see them. She wrote me back saying to her other colleagues who organize the talks that I would talk at the end of the public event. Did I want to talk at the end? I think she assumed that I wanted to be in the conversation, which would be fine. But what I wanted her to do was to see the work and to use it if she wanted, or if the other participants wanted. I didn’t ask to talk! And I didn’t think she knew those works existed because she curates historical art. But Jodi Throckmorton, who deals with contemporary work, knew about the work because she visited my studio. Anna wrote to me and her other colleagues saying that I would talk at the end. But then I remember that Jacqueline Francis was going to be one of the speakers. So I emailed Jacqueline and showed her the work. And she said she would use it, although that ended up not happening, although Jacqueline did say she would use Vetoed Dreams at some point.

Theodore A. Harris, Postcard from Conquest, 2008, triptych, mixed, media collage on board, Collection of Beatrice Jauregui and Anand Rao. Image courtesy of the artist.

Why I’m saying all this is, yeah, it was interesting that all the soldiers are in the Capitol laying around, walking around—those things are also in the collage. When I started the triptychs, for some reason I said, “I want to use images of paintings that are in the Capitol rotunda.” I have never been in the Capitol rotunda. But I had seen those images before. And I thought: these paintings are definitely propaganda about how this country got started. I found old postcards with paintings on them; the landing of Columbus is one of them. So I said, “well, let me use these and put back the history that’s not talked about in the foreground.” And so that’s how I started doing those collages. So, I think now, it’s just so ironic the inverted Capitol building is a reflection, in my eyes, a reflecting pool of justice denied to us, a people whose ancestors were the rented out enslaved, skilled labor force that built the Capitol building.

JPE: I think it’s so terribly necessarily to present a history of the US Capitol discourse that stretches back further than two weeks ago (i.e. January 6, 2021). It’s important to show the scars. And your work basically says: “do you want to see scars? I’ll show you scars.”

A related question on this front. I’m thinking of your Dutch Masters series, Thesentür, which I’m hoping we can talk more about in the context of taking white supremacist institutions to task and broader questions of institutional accountability. Your work addresses the US Capitol building, and then you have PAFA, and in this series you also have the Rijksmuseum, the very home of the Dutch Masters. Just recently there was a story about how the Rijksmuseum is beginning to acknowledge its place in the legacies of slavery, and genocide, and colonialism. And yet, and this is explicitly the case in the article about the Rijksmuseum, museum director Taco Dibbits attributes this acknowledgement in many ways to the Black Lives Matter movement, as if the Dutch museum’s self-interrogation were the direct result of this struggle. And so on the one hand you have this moment where so-called highbrow old institutions are actually making motions, if not to decolonize, then at least to gesture towards a kind of historical accountability. What you’re describing with PAFA, and what I consider to be the tenor of your work more broadly, has to do with the fact that any such accountability is very fragile. Thinking about your own Institute, which we talked about earlier, I’m wondering what you think of the way the Rijksmuseum is acknowledging Dutch slavery—as in: oh, it’s a bad, bad thing, which we acknowledge, but that’s pretty much where things end? Your work is dedicated to the refusal to end struggle at that point, I would say.

Theodore A. Harris, After Fred Moten and Robin D. G. Kelly (half here/half gone). Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism series, 2015, digital image. Image assistance by Emily Brewton Schilling. Image courtesy of the artist.

TAH: Yeah, yeah. And that’s just another ironic thing, you know. Just using that single image of Rembrandt’s Sampling Officials of the Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild (1662) as it appears edited on the “Dutch Masters” cigar box, the Dutch master’s so-called piece is so multilayered, you know, and my work is trying to dig that history out. And since the figures in Rembrandt’s image were the official samplers of the textile industry, the critics of the textiles, I want to make a causal connection between art criticism, art history, and these critics of the dyed cloth, which was made with free labor—slave labor. So making these causal connections in that series is part of the goal, what that series is about. In every Thesentürwork, you are confronted with the men in Rembrandt’s Sampling Officials of Amsterdam Drapers’ Guild, facing us like celluloid ghosts from art history’s past, sizing us up, ready to pickpocket our nightmares. If I could go back in time, I would ask the men of the Drapers’ Guild what is in that little bag that the man is holding to the right side of the painting: is it profit from the Dutch Slave Coast? And what is being recorded in that ledger book on the table, other than the quality of the dyed cloth of which they were the critics, cookin’ the books with Black bodies?

Theodore A. Harris, Statues Also Die (film) I, II and III after Chris Marker, Alain Resnais, and Ghislain Cloquet, half here / half gone (Thesentür: Conscientious Objector To Formalism series), 2020 Digital Image, Collection Of The Artist. Image assistance by Emily Brewton Schilling. Image courtesy of the artist.

JPE: You zero in on that historical knot where violence is happening, and yet which is also getting spackled over and turned into something to be consumed without reflection. This work of undoing the kind of “stop and frisk formalism” that you’ve named, and which you talk about in your manifestos. I mean, it’s uncanny how so much of your work alongside that is really doing this work of putting it up on the wall, you know, that’s what the “thesis wall” of Martin Luther’s 95 protestation, which is, I gather, where your title Thesentür comes from . . . 

TAH: Exactly. Yeah, the door. Right.

JPE: The door, the door. It makes me think about your collage The Long Dream, after Richard Wright (see below), which takes this wall manifestation quite literally. Or rather, figurally. It’s a really, really intense and beautiful piece. The other one I was thinking of is, Don’t Shoot . . . don’t shoot the . . .

TAH: Don’t Shoot the Caregivers.

Theodore A. Harris, Don’t Shoot the Caregivers, 2008, each panel 8 x 11 in. mixed media collage on board, triptych. Image courtesy of the artist.

JPE: Thank you! I think here about the weaponization of paint, of how you figure the paint as both wounded and weaponized, like with these amazing formations of paint as a political, just thinking about that idea of being up on the wall, up against the wall. The wall pays for the damage of a war. You know, you can still see that kind of residual damage years after the fact. But also it’s the wall, you know, the walls and doors behind which history gets hidden. Such a dynamic seems to run through your whole body of work. And I’m thus wondering if there’s a contrast here to that kind of institutional self, the sort of institutional reckoning that your work is pushing back against, too.

TAH: Well, now you’re hitting it on the head. In the Thesentür Manifesto, one of the quotes in there is by Martha Rosler.During a talk, she said that the “white cube” is the place where they don’t want to talk about what’s happening on the outside. So my work is about talking about what is outside the white cube. What’s going on outside the window, the door. I am using the Thesentür series to deal with what Martin Luther called Indulgences, exactly. My partner is the one who suggested that this work reminded her of Martin Luther. She’s the one that put that idea in my head. So I ran with it. And also Bill Adair, a curator who used to work at the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, said the series reminded him of Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses to the door. But anyway, the bruises, the wounds on the surface of the triptychs in the “Collage and Conflict” series: I was doing that because we used to be able to view the war dead and wounded in magazines. One of the reasons why they took images of war off of TV is because they didn’t want people to start protesting, you know, seeing these images of wars, soldiers being maimed, all the flag-draped coffins. So what I wanted to do with that was to bring the wound back onto the surface. To bring the wounds, to remind people that actual bodies are being hurt. You know, it’s not some Asteroids game, in which people are seeing these things just flying through the air. Actually, those weapons, those bombs, are hitting people. And the drones are killing people. So, I wanted to find a way to make the surface more braided and to get it more visceral.

So that’s what that was about. Also, when I started the series, I had been making collages in one format, mostly small ones, like 8 1/2 x 11. I thought that doing a triptych would challenge my sense of composition. So it’s a compositional challenge. I was also watching a lot of documentaries on Francis Bacon and those beautiful crazy triptychs he was doing, and he talked about the triptychs like film stills. I thought, wow, okay, that’s a great way to think about it. A triptych is like the slices of a film in motion. And so that’s part of how that idea came about.

JPE: I can say, it’s really remarkable to see triptych collages, because they’re usually so singular. I love the form, but there’s something almost presumed about their singularity. There are collage novels, of course, but they’re in a series, a sequence; whereas the effect of the simultaneity your triptychs create, as you’re talking about, makes me think also of some of the painters around the time of Luther, such as Bosch and Bruegel, where you get, you know, the world—the world of the now, next to the world of the past, the ideal past, and with the world of the deadly future at the far end, as seen through an apocalyptic lens.

TAH: The great thing about collages, you know, is you can bring the past and the present together and create that third world and . . . just bring those things clashing together. So, that’s the beautiful thing about collaging. And, you know, I’ve got to send you this essay by Dennis Raverty, who wrote the brochure essay for a show I did with Howardena Pindell titled War is a Map of Wounds (2009). And Dennis, who teaches art history at New Jersey City University, where the show was, in it he talked about the triptych as a religious form. Here’s what he writes: “The triptych format is familiar from Christian Medieval and Renaissance altarpieces, religious works where the central panel is reserved for the main narrative (such as a crucifixion or an annunciation), while the wings on either side depict supportive stories or related saints and apostles and in many cases portray the patrons. But whereas a traditional altarpiece is meant to inspire faith, Harris’ triptychs are meant to encourage doubt and to make the viewer question the received narrative, as well as the sponsorship or patronage of, for example, the Iraq war, with its ties to corporate oil interests.”3

JPE: I think this idea is already there in the Francis Bacon, too. Not so much the religious part but the fact that one of the effects of looking at a giant triptych, is that it surrounds you, right? It encloses you, and it creates a world, this idea of a world in a wound, and putting that on the surface of the world.

This is something of an abrupt segue, but thinking about wounds, and thinking about worlds, and thinking about the repressed or suppressed violence of the past and present, I’d just love to hear your take on dreams. This is not a surrealism thing, I promise. [laughing] I mean, you name-check dreams in many of your titles, and obviously the discourse on dreams resonates throughout your work in terms of social justice, in terms of violence, and in terms of survival. There’re plenty of modalities that don’t have anything to do with the actual unconscious. I read some of the recent discussions about Vetoed Dreams, but I’d especially love to get your take on the resonance of dreams in the Richard Wright piece I think is so brilliant.

Theodore A. Harris, The Long Dream, After Richard Wright, 1995, paper collage on board, 30.48 x 39.37 cm. Anonymous Gift in honour of Professor Charmaine Nelson. McGill University Visual Arts Collection 2020-003. Image courtesy of the artist.

TAH: Thanks, hmm, let’s see. Well, the Richard Wright piece came first. So, I was about to start reading The Long Dream (1958), Wright’s final novel. I never finished it. But the title grabbed me, and I said, “What could I do with that title?” I try to make the titles that clash somewhat with the corresponding image; some people will probably say it’s so distant that it’s like dreaming with your eyes open. The image depicts this kid, who is looking out from a fence but also from behind a wall that was damaged by rocket fire. I think it was Israeli gunfire, or missiles. My aim was both to layer the surface but also to make it minimal, too. There are just two images. There’s the image of that boy behind the fence from the movie Fresh, and then I found the wall in some Sunday magazine section about the war in Israel and Palestine, the Palestinian struggle. There was a man looking out from that hole in the wall, and I cut him out and put the kid back there instead, and that was the collage.

I hadn’t realized just how much I use the word “dreams”—maybe not a lot, but enough. This dream: it can be a nightmare that you are witnessing with your eyes open. And so in Vetoed Dreams I was looking for a title and I asked a friend of mine to give it a title; this another really accomplished artist named John Abner. I went to him a couple of times for titles, and he titled that one Vetoed Dreams. And it was perfect, a perfect title. Two words, not long, and it was so obvious with the Capitol upside down. Yeah, it was just perfect.

So: dreams. When you think about surrealism, that’s one of the things that I tried to put into one of my most realistic pieces, which is On the Heel of Famine. That title came from a poem by Tony Medina, a poet and children’s book author who teaches at Howard University. So yeah, I think that that particular collage, in form it’s the most surrealistic, I think, because the perspective is deep, the figures in the foreground push the space back. The piece has a hand coming out of the sky with a bowl, a wounded hand with a bowl in it coming down to where the figures are. Dreaming with your eyes open.

JPE: One of the things I’m really impressed by in both our conversation here and in things that you’ve written, is that you are very gracious citationally—that is, you’re very explicit about where your titles come from, where your ideas come from. It’s almost as if the glove of a dream were turned inside out: it’s easy to think about dreams as profoundly intimate, but all the stuff comes from somewhere else. There’s something lovely and striking about the moments where you make this gesture, as when you mentioned that your partner is the one who suggested the Luther stuff, and your friend who gave you the title for Vetoed Dreams. And likewise, you cite Diop, Césaire. Those coordinates are really fundamental, not just because you’re a collage artist and a poet, but because there’s an ethos there too.

TAH: When I’m reading about an artist, or a poet, I start to investigate why they do what they do. What artists and other thinkers inspired them or who they came in conflict with and why. And so it gets me going. In the Thesentür series, each line I did not write myself is named after Harold Rosenberg, or after Césaire, and stuff like that. I can’t assume that people know who they are. Harold Rosenberg said this. Well, who is he? And then they can go back and find out who he is on their own. I want to make my research a part of the art, because I think too many artists want to talk about ambiguity; they want to leave all this mystery around what they do. And I’m not really about that. I’m about sharing information, because it’s about educating each other. It’s about education. It’s not about me, you know, trying to look slick. None of this “my sources are secret.” No, no, no, no. If somebody wants to know how I got to where I got to with this particular type of work, there’s a through line you can see. And if you’re interested, you can follow that. And, if you don’t, that’s cool too. I just think the research is interesting—how the artists come up with ideas and make material, how they use the materials to construct their ideas. So that’s why I talk about this whole thing.

That’s a big thing with me, and with the Thesentür series, which is about mainstream art critics not dealing with form and content on an even plane. I take issue, for instance, with how critics would talk about an artist’s race, and use that as a way to devalue the work. . . just because the artist is talking about race, using the materials to talk about the subject. Or even if they’re not talking about race; even if they’re just talking about form. How is this person using the materials? That should be the criterion. How are you using the materials? Is what you’re saying coming through clearly enough? I mean, just deal with people, just have respect for human beings and what they’re trying to do, and just hold them on the same high level as you would anybody else. That’s why the Thesentür series is really about digging in and finding what’s poetic about what people have to say about art, how art is talked about.

JPE: This brings me back to the adjective that Amiri Baraka came up with to describe your work: “truthoscopic.” Collage is often understood as creating disjunctures, jarring discontinuities—and that’s great, but there’s almost the sense of an illegibility to collage. That is, it creates mysteries, such as when, say, Max Ernst puts a bird head on a human body and people are like, “Whoah, it’s so weird.” But this idea of “truthoscopy”—and your discussion about process—points instead to a fundamental legibility. It’s historical, it is the wound, it is an act of teaching, but also a manifestation and an act of nailing the manifesto up onto the wall. I think this also helps me to look at collages differently. You can still find beautiful moments that are abstract, formally enticing, and so forth? And again, just because it is about politics, it is about history, it is about truth, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have stunning formal qualities. But thinking about collage as legible, and as a mode of teaching, is really powerful, and applies not just your work—rather, it enables one to read backwards and forwards from your work to think about collage as fundamentally legible, truthoscopic.

Theodore A. Harris. Studio image, Shadow Mirrors / Facts on the Ground, 2001, digital image printed on paper. Image courtesy of the artist.
Theodore A. Harris, A Match Made in Heaven Trap / Malcolm X Trapped (Facts on the Ground series), 2001. Sizes variable. Image courtesy of the artist.
Theodore A. Harris, JFK on the Moon Trap after Gil Scott Heron / Bondage Trap (Facts on the Ground series), 2001. Sizes variable.

TAH: Yeah. And then I think I’d like to put together sources and other thinkers and artists who are never talked about in the same sentence. For instance, I did a series called Facts on the Ground.” The ideas for that came from Adrian Piper’spiece, Black Box, White Box (1992), and Romare Bearden’s six-panel multimedia piece, The Block (1971), where he portrayed the block across the street from his studio in Harlem, this one block—and then one of the windows, the whole window, is a mousetrap. It was like, what the hell? What is he saying about poverty, you know? That stuck with me. So I got a mousetrap, and I wondered: what should I do with this? Try not to put a human body in it. As some people say, “Why don’t you just put a figure in it.” But then a friend of mine had these political buttons, these protest buttons—about stopping executions in Pennsylvania, or images of Malcolm X. I even found an old birth control dispenser on the street. So I put these objects in the mousetraps, and it just took it to another level. And then I wrote a manifesto about that series after Romare Bearden and Adrian Piper. What I was trying to say was that the Adrian Piper part is about when you go into one of the boxes. There’s an image of Rodney King in there, when he was brutalized. In other words, you see these two boxes, these two formal cubes. But when you walk inside those two cubes, you’re dealing with the history of what happened in America at this time. What I love about it is you’re not expecting that: you’re not expecting you to walk into these cubes, and then you get hit with it. That’s the kind of thinking that I’m trying to work with in my collage and assemblage.

JPE: No, it absolutely does. And also, I think it’s really interesting, I love this, how you’re talking about the choice of what stands as the index for the thing, too. Don’t just put a, you know, human body under the mouse, but thinking about, you know, so much of the choice about how to represent history, how to, you know, how to still use the dramatic juxtapositions and surprises that you described as being part of collage and assemblage, you know, somehow has to do like, what stands for the thing that you were teaching? And like this? There’ll be mystery and surprise in that, but we still know what it does.

TAH: Yeah, you want to surprise yourself too. I’m sure you notice as a writer: you read all this stuff, but what you say about it will have some sprinkles of what’s influenced you. How can you take it to another level, so that when we come to you, and check out what you have to say about all this, how can you make us deal with it a little differently?

Not that we have to agree with what you’re saying. But just that you made something else exist. To give you something else to contemplate and say, maybe: “I’d never thought about Césaire’s work like this. Let me think about it a little bit.” This is why I use the fireplace in the Thesantür installation. I wanted to see how I would feel about seeing those objects in there. You know, I felt kind of weird putting an African mask, a Bembe mask, in a soup tureen on an African stool in a fireplace. What risk am I taking with how the public is going to perceive it? But I have to do it, because if I don’t experience how I feel about it, I’m not going to be able to go further. I need to be able to deal with it first, and then let the public come at it how they want to come at it. You have to take these risks.

JPE: Yeah. Could you say more about the risk part? Because there’s risk, and then there’s risk, if you know what I mean. It’s very easy to read or hear people talk about risk and not take it. And there’s a different kind of risk altogether, not the agonistic risk of great daring, but the risk of one not being taken quite as seriously as one should. Could you just say a bit more about risk, in this context? I think it’s really important to talk about risk.

TAH: This question makes me think of a poem by Lamont B. Steptoe, who is a Vietnam vet. Steptoe has written a lot of great poetry about Vietnam and the Black experience, of course, but he has a line that reminds me of that Césaire line, where he talked about Black life, about the “blast furnace of life.” And I think that’s part of the reason why I did that piece too, now that I’m thinking about it; that line has always been with me. I take and listen to all this stuff and I’m saying: What can I do with it? With visual art? How can I engage literature with visual art and see what I could come up with? It’s almost like somebody handing you a baton and saying, “I ran the race. Now, you take it, and you go, and I hope you get across that finish line.” Because you’re standing on the shoulders of all these people that did all this great work. And they did it so that we can see what we can do with it next.

So when I did the piece, I was taking the risk. I thought it was worth taking; sometimes I know people are going to get on me about what I do. But if you have a feeling that you know, then so what? I still have to do it. I have to do it for me, and I have to do it for the form—to see what form and content is going to come from it. And not to hope that someone’s going to save you, or that everyone is going to feel the same way about it. Some people are going to cheer you on, and some people are going to be like, “you shouldn’t have done that.” When people talk about the audience, I think: well, if anybody’s going to an art gallery or a museum, I think they should be feeling like, “when I go in here, I know these artists gave it all that they got. I know when I pick up this novel, this person put all this work in it.” That’s a feeling I think that people should have. And you could go in there and say, “this guy’s a hack.” [laughing] But the risk you have to take is doing the work that you want to see in your head. That’s what I’m talking about. Making the kind of work that you want to see. Writing the kind of poetry, the novel, the essay that you think needs to exist . . . there’s a gap, you think. There’s a gap somewhere in the literature; it needs something else to be read, it needs another idea to take it to another level. So,\ you have to take that chance.

And the other thing is that I’m into this thing now where I’m not concerned about making work that is to be seen as much as possible. I’m more like: look, this is for the future. This is for long after I’m gone. I want to make something solid enough that it’ll stand and it’ll hold, have some weight to it, that it will have something to say long after I’m gone. And because you’re dealing with all this history of people who did all this great work, and you want your work to hold up too, no matter what form—the poetry or the essay—that’s why we’re still dealing with Césaire’s work now, because he put so much into it. We don’t know how many drafts of those poems there were before he got to the one that we have now.

Baraka was the same way. And Baraka did talk about risk. This person—he left no stone unturned, especially in that poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” I mean, man. And you know, the thing about that poem is so many people from all over the world, so many different types of people, can stand on that poem and say, you know what, that’s part ofmy history there. Part of how I’ve been treated is there. When he says in that poem, “who put the Jews in ovens, and who helped them do it?” That’s a hell of a line. That’s something we’ve got to think about now, you know. Who put the yellow stars on them? A lot of people can stand on the shoulders of just that stanza alone and say, that’s my history. At every moment a yellow star is being put on somebody somewhere.

JPE: That’s terrifying, and beautifully put. Thank you.

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Endnotes

  1. Theodore A. Harris, “HUNTED EVERYWHERE: Collaging the Capitol, a Manifesto (2006), in Theodore A. Harris and Amiri Baraka, Our Flesh of Flames. Anvil Art Press, 2008, 36-37.
  2. Amiri Baraka, in Our Flesh of Flames, 4.
  3. War is a Map of Wounds: The Art of Howardena Pindell and Theodore A. Harris, with performance by Rafael Sanchez; curated by Midori Yoshimoto, New Jersey City University, Jersey City, N.J. (Brochure essay by Dennis Raverty). See Craven, David. “Present Indicative Politics and Future Perfect Positions: Barack Obama and Third Text.Third Text, Vol. 23, No. 5, pp. 643-648, also ​Winkenweder, Brian, editor. Art History as Social Praxis: The Collected Writings of David Craven. Haymarket Books, 2017, p. 330.