Theodore A. Harris: Master Unmasker of Hidden Histories / John Heon

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

“Philip Guston’s ‘return to figuration’ put impure thoughts in the minds of Kramer and Greenberg.” Read it out loud. Say it to someone you love—or who inspires impure thoughts. Even if you don’t really know who Guston, Kramer, or Greenberg were, it’s funny, but if you do, it’s hilarious. In fact, if those words don’t make you and any interlocutors laugh out loud, you should consider logotherapy and medication.

The man who wrote that jocose haiku of art historical insight and then printed it in the red font of the Dutch Masters box above the image of the Rembrandt that those cheap cigars made famous, is Philadelphia-based artist Theodore A. Harris. Harris, whose mentor and collaborator was Amiri Baraka (1934-2013), brings a poetic, biting wit to his work, which combines a wide range of genres and media, from collage to painting, and sculptural installation, mixing photographs, text, and found objects.

Harris’s words and images are far more than just provocative and funny. He is a master unmasker of hidden histories, both artistic and political. Like Ralph Ellison, he makes the invisible man and his history visible, and like Ellison, he understands the centrality of masking and the importance of unmasking in America. In his 1958 Partisan Review essay, “Change the Joke and Slip the Yoke,” Ellison wrote, “America is a land of masking jokers…. We wear the mask for purposes of aggression as well as for defense; when we are projecting the future and preserving the past. In short, the motives hidden behind the mask are as numerous as the ambiguities the mask conceals” (1547). Harris’s art scrutinizes art, art history, and political history, peeling back their masks and exposing the motives behind them.

Harris is especially adept at examining the masks that cover up the ugly truth about the American racial unconscious, showing their risible hypocrisy. And he does this with a sense of “Black black humor” similar to Ellison’s and Baraka’s, a humor that reveals that which has been systematically concealed. Harris draws you in with the arresting statement or visual image that often acts as a kind of riddle or koan; its odd, enigmatic nature elicits a simultaneous smile and puzzlement. Then, with X-rays of Witz, he penetrates layer after layer of repressed historical truth, showing how reality comically inverts the generally unquestioned narratives of race and class.  In a recent BOMB interview with poet Kristin Prevallet (11/2/20), Harris said that he hopes his work is “read as a poetic history book” and added that this conception of his art grew out of his collaboration with Baraka, who “brought so much knowledge in his response to the layers of history in the images.” One of the caption-poems Baraka wrote for Harris’s artworks in their collaborative work, Our Flesh of Flames (2008), has the tongue-in-cheek title, “BRITANNICA SAYS THERE IS NO EXPLANATION OR USE FOR LAUGHTER.”

Both Harris and Baraka have, of course, repeatedly refuted this statement, using a pointed sense of humor that pokes holes in the masks of self-righteous denial. To wit, the body of the same caption-poem:

The Spanish word
For Sad
Is Dolor
The Christian Word for Dolor is buck
The Anglo Saxon
For Love

Harris’s ironic use of the inverted image of the U.S. Capitol Building in several pieces in Our Flesh of Flames is more relevant than ever after the recent violent inversion of democratic values there.

Although much of Harris’s body of work manifests these qualities, his “Thesentür: Conscientious Objector to Formalism” series stands out in its 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.  The German word “Thesentür,” literally “theses door,” refers  to the door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church, to which Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses. Harris’s work partakes of that revolutionary nature, challenging canonical beliefs with bold statements, just as Martin Luther King, Jr. did centuries after Luther.


Running horizontally along the bottom of each of the Thesentür pieces is an image of the aforementioned illustration on the Dutch Masters cigar box (either in its original form or “ghost” silhouette), which is taken from Rembrandt’s 1662 painting, “The Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild” (or “The Sampling Officials”). It’s a Rembrandt! How dare you not worship it? But there’s another way of looking at this painting, and that involves looking beneath its surface, its generally unquestioned status as a masterpiece. As Harris puts it, “I am interested in what the artwork is not telling me about the world in which the artist lived at the time he was creating this work.” Rembrandt, who was desperate for cash in 1662 because of a recent bankruptcy caused by his profligate spending, produced this commissioned group portrait of “The Syndics,” the men whose job it was to certify the quality of the dyed cloth produced and sold by the Dutch East India Company—a massive and very profitable global corporation that was, as Harris puts it, “heavily invested in the flesh trade.”

Thus, the Dutch Masters, painted in all their gravitas by that most famous of Old Masters, were also the “Dutch Slave Masters.” It’s a predictable but still disturbing irony that today this image is used to sell tobacco, another massively profitable product of a global industry built on over two centuries of slave labor. The irony deepens when one learns that the Dutch East India Company is also routinely presented in American business schools as a case study of the first international conglomerate corporation—complete with government funding and paramilitary powers that would make most oil companies green with envy.

Harris’s investigations of the connections between Dutch art, colonialism, and slavery have been ongoing for several years, but they have recently taken on an additional level of cultural resonance because this largely ignored history is the focus of a major new exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, Slavery: Ten True Stories (12 Feb.-30 May, 2021). In the show, the “hidden links to slavery” in Dutch art are exemplified by (no surprise to Harris) Rembrandts, namely two commissioned wedding portraits from 1634 depicting Martin Soolmans and his wife, Oopjen Coppit. This is a particularly meaningful curatorial choice given that the Rijksmuseum is the most prominent art museum in the Netherlands and most famous for having the best collection of Rembrandts in the world. Soolmans made a fortune from Surinamese/Brazilian sugar plantations worked by slaves, and Coppit was from a wealthy old Amsterdam family—it was a “power marriage,” akin to a corporate merger. Rembrandt painted both portraits in full length in part to display in meticulous detail their lavish clothing and accoutrements; they are draped in garments made from luxurious Dutch textiles, accentuated with elaborate lace collars and garters, pearl necklaces, and gold chains. Soolmans, resplendent in his finery, is the epitome of status and power, a 17th-century corporate “(slave)master of the universe,” and Coppit is his capitalist queen. The exhibition also presents the story of Wali, a slave who tried to escape from a Surinamese sugar plantation. He was caught and condemned to be “slowly burned alive” as punishment, a sentence that was eventually revoked because the Dutch colonial powers feared it would spark a widespread slave revolt—and drastically cut profits.

Although rarely discussed today, the evils of Dutch slavery were well known in Europe in the mid 18th century, especially among Enlightenment thinkers, something that the Rijksmuseum exhibition does not explore directly but which underscores the historical importance of the topic. For example, Voltaire in his satirical novel, Candide (1759), painted a literary portrait of a Dutch-owned slave who met a much crueler fate than Wali did. During Candide’s picaresque adventures around the globe, he meets an African slave on a Dutch sugar plantation in Suriname who has had his right hand and left leg cut off by his Dutch master (Mynheer Vanderdendur) for accidentally damaging a sugar mill and for trying to escape, respectively. The nameless slave explains that this was not extraordinary but customary punishment, and he concludes his tragic story with the statement, “This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.” As Harris has shown throughout the Thesentür series, this is also the price at which you acquired Rembrandts in Holland.

Historical context, especially of this kind, is precisely what Greenberg, Kramer, and other formalist art historians would shun because, according to them, art is a thing in and of only itself, “pure form” to be judged and appreciated solely on the basis of its aesthetic merits and technical mastery. In another Thesentür piece, “After Harold Rosenberg (ghosts)” (2015), Harris addresses this neglected issue more directly: “Apparently, Aesthetics Can Function as a Tool of Racism.”

And it can do so even (and especially) when the awareness of racism doesn’t exist in the mind of the person who aids and abets it. In many respects Harris is illustrating what Guston said in his 1960 refutation of Kramer and Greenberg: “There is something ridiculous and miserly in the myth we inherit from abstract art: that painting is autonomous, pure and for itself, therefore we habitually analyze its ingredients and define its limits. But painting is ‘impure.’ It is the adjustment of ‘impurities’ that forces its continuity. We are image makers and image ridden” (Musa Mayer, Night Studio: A Memoir of Philip Guston. NY: Knopf, 1988, p. 141). This is the subtext for Harris’s statement that Guston put “impure thoughts in the minds of Kramer and Greenberg,” i.e., that “pure Art” is violated and desecrated if socio-political reality enters it.

Similarly, when Harris makes the delightfully evocative statement, “Clement Greenberg’s Forked Tongue Eats People,” he’s not only making us laugh but inviting us to think about the connections between “pure aesthetics” and a capitalist-colonialist system that has devoured human beings for centuries.

Through these pieces and others, Harris proves to the viewer that if we insist on not looking beneath the mask of the surface, beyond the “pure” aesthetic visual image, we are willfully ignoring and condoningthe ignoring of the immoral economic and political systems  that led to the production of the work of art. It’s equivalent to looking at a well-wrought statue of Robert E. Lee and talking only about the beauty of its lines, or at a Southern plantation mansion and discussing only its whitewashed neoclassical architecture. Like Guston, Harris is showing how distorted our understanding of art is when we consider only the aesthetics of the image and cover up the real human histories of it.

Harris shows his viewer how the slavish devotion to the formalist formula blinds us to the brutal realities that often hide behind the beguiling surface. This is not to say that he’s claiming Rembrandt was not a great painter, but it is to say that he’s claiming there is much more to Rembrandt’s painting than meets the eye when one moves beyond the aesthetic analysis of it. As such, in Thesentür Harris constructs a series of theses proving the artistic merit of the awareness of art-historical masking—and the concommitant need for unmasking. In effect, he is an unmasking joker, whose witzig analysis of the American racial unconscious uncovers the great hidden id of “follow the money” politics and economics. Harris’s art exposes the intercontinental con-man’s dark arts, and like Jenny Holzer, he prompts us to “Laugh Hard at the Absurdly Evil.”

Following in the tradition of Guston, whose cartoonish depictions of Klansmen done shortly after Martin Luther King’s assassination explored how deeply rooted racism still was in America in the late 1960s, Harris wants us to take a hard look at the denied histories of hate and see how ludicrously malevolent they were and are, how the white-hooded ghosts keep haunting us.

Another prime example of Harris’s use of humor to draw the viewer in with an arresting,  statement that ultimately unmasks the bizarre, ugly reality behind it is “After Ota Benga/ghosts free to roam” (2017), also from the Thesentür series. It features the text, “Ota Benga Flung a Chair at the Head of Florence Guggenheim”

Of course, once again, it’s hilarious—and cathartic. Who hasn’t wanted to fling at chair at Florence Guggenheim, at least in their dreams? It’s an odd image to conjure in the imagination, and again, you can’t help but smile or laugh, while wondering perhaps who Ota Benga is or was, or if he’s just the personification of collective artistic wish-fulfillment. But Benga’s story is so real and so tragic, and the people who caused the tragedy were so absurdly evil, that it makes the mind reel. Benga was a young African whose family had been slaughtered by the Belgian colonial forces in the Congolese massacre and who was then brought to America by an anthropologist in 1906.

After the anthropologist’s funds were depleted, Benga, who knew almost no English and was bewildered by the completely foreign culture into which he had been dropped, was left with the staff of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. One night, he was “roaming freely” through the museum when Florence Guggenheim was there, and when they suddenly crossed paths she frightened him so much that he threw a chair at her, thinking he was being attacked. Although Guggenheim was not harmed, soon after this incident, Benga was put on display in the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in 1906, in the same cage as the monkeys and larger primates.  His life ended in a few years later, when, in despair over his multiple traumas and the apparent impossibility of returning to Africa, he shot himself through the heart with a pistol. Benga’s sad, surreal story reads like a uniquely American afterword to Conrad’s 1899 novel, Heart of Darkness, complete with “the horror, the horror” generated by the Belgian rape of the Congo. And it echoes the millions of atrocities committed by those who considered other races or ethnic groups subhuman. Harris presents “After Ota Benga” as a sculptural installation with text stenciled on the wall along with a broken chair, a bust of Apollo, and models of two of Columbus’ ships on the floor, is another invitation to deeper historical investigation, one that completely inverts your expectations. Your amused smile at the title and wall text dissolves as you absorb the gut-punch of the truth behind it. But then, if you think a bit more, your smile will return as your realize once again that you need to laugh, along with Harris, at this and other absurdly evil actions that are covered up or ignored by conventional history and art.

Harris will teach you things you didn’t know, or didn’t think you needed to know, and he will make you think about things you thought you knew—and think again. And laugh again. And look again, and see something new, something you missed the first time. He has a connoisseur’s eye for the multiple forms of hypocrisy, denial, and cover-up; he immediately spots the sets and stages that the power-hungry fabricate to conjure up an aura of unimpeachable authority. He has a gift for detecting the fake face, the false front, the white-washed (or orange-washed) façade, and then uncovering the multiple disturbing realities behind these apparently benign images, the unquestioned assumptions that so much of society runs on.

“Vetoed Dreams,” another piece that plays upon masking/unmasking, was done in 1995, twenty years before the Thesentür series, yet it has an uncanny pertinence to American and global racial politics today.

In fact, it was one of the featured works of a July 2020 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts panel discussion on the various forms and uses of masking in the visual arts (it is in the PAFA permanent collection). In “Vetoed Dreams,” we see a photograph of a Black boy, who looks about twelve years old but seems wise and intense far beyond his years, wearing a mask that would appear to place him in 2020. This is set next to an inverted photographic image of the US Capitol Building. Is he wearing a mask against COVID, or the teargas of the federal police clearing a path through peaceful protesters in Lafayette Square? Is this yet another African American “dream deferred” to the point of being vetoed, of dying? As iconically American as the boy’s image may seem because of its juxtaposition with the Capitol, the photo is actually that of a boy standing on, as Harris describes it, “a landscape of dead bodies,” during the Rwandan genocide. His mask was worn not to hide his face but to block the smell of the decaying corpses. This was not an American dream vetoed but a Rwandan dream of life and peace vetoed by an American government that continued to supply arms to Uganda, knowing that Uganda’s leaders were, in turn, supplying arms to the Rwandan terrorist groups that were planning the genocide—the same American government that could have stopped the massacres once they started, but never really tried.

Make a logical leap now from the US Capitol to Das Kapital, not Marx’s famous tome but Baraka’s 1972 poem of the same name from his collection, Hard Facts. “Das Kapital” is a bit of poetic detective work in following the money to unmask the hidden truth: “A few other clues/we mull them over as we go to sleep, the skeletons of/dollarbills, traces of dead used up/labor, lead away from the death scene until we remember a quiet fit that everywhere is the death scene.” Like the fortunes of the Dutch Masters, so many American fortunes (cotton, tobacco, coal, steel, railroads) were “won” or rather stolen via the extraction of the surplus value of labor, i.e., by either enslaving Africans or creating a wage-slavery situation for recent immigrants of all races who had no real alternative but starvation. Harris understands the skeletons of dollarbills and how to sniff out the traces of used up labor that lead away from the death scene. It’s all there. But we don’t notice it because no one talks about it. Well, almost no one.

Today, more than ever, Harris is giving us sage and salubrious advice. At a time in American history when a raging, corpulent, money-mad, fact-denying white man in a puffy, orange-makeup mask is claiming that he has done more for African Americans than any president since Abraham Lincoln, it’s a good time to look again at the image of the Lincoln Memorial next to the inverted Capitol Building in Harris’s “On the Throne of Fire After Somebody Blew Up America (for Amiri Baraka)” and in Harris and Baraka’s Our Flesh of Flames, and contemplate its multiple layers of bitterly ironic truth.

At a time when the same neo-Aryan, “blond”-haired, blue-eyed, orange-makeup mask is being proudly displayed on the banners waved by both the neo-Nazis in Germany and white nationalists in America, it is a good time to recall the prophetic lines Baraka wrote in 2013, shortly before his death: “I thought they said all of them Nazis was out of here permanent…. I feel Nazis. There’s Nazis here” (in “What’s That Who Is This in Them Old Nazi Clothes? Nazi’s Dead”). If you think that’s just poetic hyperbole, talk to the survivors of the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, where an American white nationalist armed with an assault rifle killed eleven members of the congregation on October 27, 2018, or to the family of Officer Brian Sicknick, who was beaten to death during the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, by a Trumpist mob chanting antisemitic slogans and bearing Confederate flags.

Like Baraka, Theodore Harris knows that looking behind the masks, learning the hard facts (not the “alternative facts”), and staying vigilant against the eternal returns of the most absurdly evil forces in history are more profoundly urgent than ever. Like Ellison, he knows we have to change the joke to slip the yoke of ignorance and apathy—and learn how to laugh hard at the right things.

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