San Francisco

Lyle Ashton Harris/Thomas Allen Harris

New Langton Arts

ALCHEMY is the first major collaboration of the artists Lyle Ashton Harris, who works in photography and installation, and Thomas Allen Harris, who works in film and video. The brothers subdivided the gallery into a series of intimate, flowing spaces to house nine Cibachrome photographs and three film-to-digital-videodisc projections that bring African themes into an installation-art context. Entering the gallery, we come face-to-face with Untitled (Mother), 1998, a striking figure in profile whose gaze guides us toward another photograph on a far wall, Untitled (Orisha Study), 1994–98. The latter, which depicts two figures whose bodies are painted gold and a third, black-clad figure with face paint, serves to encapsulate the core references of the installation. The pair invokes the Marasa, or sacred twins, of Yoruba cosmology (who are prominent as well in related belief systems of the African diaspora, like Voodoo, Santeria, and Candomble). The gold color of the sacred twins indicates that the Harrises have hybridized them with Oshun, the goddess of love and seduction. The third figure, too, is multivalent: sacred twins are often portrayed as three figures in African religious artworks to accentuate the abundance they represent, but in the Harrises’ photograph the third figure also suggests Elegba, the Yoruba trickster. Both Elegba and the sacred twins are associated with crossroads, especially that of life and death, and that transitional site is an important theme for ALCHEMY. The brothers (who are not twins) mine the multifarious Marasa symbolism both for the regenerative potential of traditional beliefs and as a metaphor for transformation in addressing contemporary issues relevant to them as African American artists—for instance, the reclaiming of the fetishized black male body.

A central theme of the show is blood—blood ties (several members of the artists’ family are represented in the photographs); blood as related to sacrifice, death, mourning (in rituals depicted in the films); and blood as the pretense for constructions of race (in the photographs’ attempts to grapple with ethnography’s heritage of objectifying Africans). The Harrises weave into the Yoruba-based narrative issues that both have addressed before—family, queer identity, religion, the black self—but here the range and complexity of the references they bring to bear is so considerable that the basic matrix is shown to be a source of great possibility and thus hope. Some of the photographs retain the slick camp of Lyle Ashton Harris’ earlier work—in Untitled (Somewhere), 1998, for instance, a man in S/M garb stands before a shamanic figure—but the wealth of signification obviates the more trite residues.

The viewer is able to take in all three DVD projections simultaneously, yet each screen may partially obscure the one behind and off center from it. Like transformations in general, the films both recuperate and leave behind what came before. Memory is also a running theme in the installation. One of the projections in ALCHEMYFilm, 1998, shows a woman entering the sea; on the other side of the wall on which it is projected hangs a photograph of the same scene. This arrangement suggests a sequence of events crystallizing into a powerful mnemonic image (or, conversely, a single moment generating a narrative around itself). The modes in which people preserve, filter, and rework their cultures of “origin” are played out here on a meta-cultural level, and the Harris brothers’ installation succeeds in conveying its subject not only symbolically but in the very structure of its conception.

Daniela Salvioni