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A Filmmaker’s Journeys Across the African Diaspora

Throughout his career, photographs and family narratives have been at the center of Thomas Allen Harris’s films.

By Serubiri Moses

Production still from Through A Lens Darkly, 2014
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

I first came across the work of artist, writer, and filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris in an article for California Newsreel by curator Rhea L. Combs, in which she calls Harris’s documentary É Minha Cara (That’s My Face) (2001) “a queer mythopoetic journey through the African Diaspora.” Currently, Harris is known for his recent appointment as a senior lecturer at Yale School of Art, but early in his career, in the 1980s, he was known as television producer. He also gained recognition for his participation in the 1995 Whitney Biennial, and as a member of the experimental video-film and postconceptual art scene in SoHo and Lower East Side of Manhattan during the same period. Yet I have come to understand his work as being located in the cultural triangulation about the Atlantic: Africa, South America, and North America. In this interview, Harris speaks about four works: VINTAGE – Families of Value (1995), É Minha Cara/That’s My Face (2001), Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2006), and Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014).

Through a discussion of his creative process, Harris engages with the notion of the “circle” when thinking about photographic archives. He not only advances the circular as a thematic through which to view the archive, but he equally reveals the importance of archives in building stories, narratives, or history. This might not appear unique—that is, until one considers Harris as being proximate to the 1990s efforts by New York–based artists and writers who intervened in histories within which they had yet to be adequately represented. Such an effort is illustrated in the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive, which focuses on the correspondence and personal papers of several Black and queer figures, at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public Library.

Production still fromTwelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, 2005
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Because of the precarity of historical records, personal letters and photographs are liable to go missing. Often, these are the missing parts of the “circle” or of a story. Completing this story can be challenging, if not exhausting. And as such, for Harris, the search for historical and personal archival documents is one of self-determination and conviction. Harris’s filmic process has consisted of making journeys across both time and space in Bahia, Brazil; Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Bloemfontein, South Africa; and Harlem, New York.

While the photo album can be the concrete container of personal family portraits—listing dates and events in one family—it can also be a metaphor for a larger cultural and political history. In Through a Lens Darkly, Harris demonstrates how connections can be made between his own family and a larger American story through the juxtaposition of Frederick Douglass’s portrait with his childhood portraits taken by his grandfather, thus revealing the power of archives as mediums of storytelling.

Production still from É a Minha Cara (That’s My Face), 2001
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Serubiri Moses: In all your films, there is a recurring moment at which the first person “I” becomes emancipated through photography. In É Minha Cara, this happens through a filming process during which the narrator “sees himself” in the cultural process of the Yoruba festivals in Bahia, Brazil. What does a photographic liberation mean to you?

Thomas Allen Harris: I think it’s the relationship of photography to the mirror. In the sense that it can give another kind of a reflection, and not a posed reflection. It’s more about how one is seen within one’s community. It is this reflection-refraction. This sense of being present and seeing oneself across time, through photography.

I was raised in front of the camera. In the course of making my films, I realized the extent to which my grandfather documented the family. I had lived there growing up, and I was the first grandchild, the first of four that lived with them. My grandmother principally took care of me and my grandfather photographed me. And so I was the model. Just finding those images shows that the camera can be, in the context of family, this gift of love.

Moses: That’s incredible. Can you describe this more?

Harris: It means that you can actually be present with someone, engage, take pride in, and encourage. Subconsciously I have that awareness. It’s something that my brother has as well: Lyle Ashton Harris, who turns it into his own work and trajectory.

The camera has been a very reassuring presence in our lives. As opposed to some situations where people want to avoid the camera: “Don’t take a picture of me.” The way in which they are seen, they must have encountered a vision of themselves, photographically, that was about a kind of denial of beauty and power. It might be a projection. But the camera has been an affirmative tool, an emancipatory tool, growing up in a country in which the stereotype looms so large.

Production still from Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela, 2005
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Moses: The family album becomes this method to examine photographic history but also national history. It is America’s photographic history, but it’s also a family history. I was interested in that, and you just affirmed it. But what other containers or structures exist beyond the family album?

Harris: For me, the archive has been clues left on a path to help me realize certain aspects of identity—whether diasporic identity or personal identity—and tools to be able to create. So much of my work is inspired by the archive, or kind of rubbing up against the archive and creating something alongside it, another narrative that’s both personal but also in the service of a collective or community building. In terms of my work, it is about socially engaged practice. As I am engaging these journeys around filmmaking, the films are really rubbing up against these individuals and changing certain things, and inviting people in. Each of them has been a participatory practice, and community building.

Moses: You have the family album as this strong container, that you can refer to; you have your own pictures, you know the people who have taken the pictures, you have seen yourself in the album change over time, you can reference it.

Harris: If I had not embarked on the films that I’ve embarked upon, it would not have set me on a journey to find these archives—they were not readily available. They were not readily available in the way that I could use them. They weren’t in my consciousness.

Production still from VINTAGE – Families of Value, 1995
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Moses: When you worked as a film producer in the late ’80s into the early ’90s, how did you transition into that kind of performative photographic work that you were making? It looks very much connected to the artists who were working around you at that time—no doubt your brother Lyle Ashton Harris is among them, as well. And what structures were available to you to do that work before you actually found the archives?

Harris: The first film is called VINTAGE – Families of Value. And that film I started in the late ’80s. It looks at three African American families through the lives of LGBT siblings. So with three different sibling sets, I gave them cameras and asked them to interview each other. In part it started when my brother tested HIV positive, and I introduced the camera into our dialogue, and we start speaking across the camera. And so that became this kind of family conversation that was happening. I was also directing these non-actors to perform, including myself, to perform their identities in a certain kind of way. I started to look for archival material to support that film. At the time, I wasn’t looking at the archival materials in this intense kind of way that I would later on in the next three films. They came to me: they were like gifts. In my bed, underneath the bed that my stepfather made for us, I found these three reels of Super 8 film. They were the films I used in that film VINTAGE – Families of Value. That’s when I started.

Production still from VINTAGE – Families of Value, 1995
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Moses: Can you tell me the story of É Minha Cara?

Harris: After we finished VINTAGE – Families of Value, I started traveling. First place I traveled with that film was Brazil. I decided to go and make a film in Brazil, I had always wanted to. I left with two Super 8 cameras to just document this journey, but also was aware—as I had done the stuff with Vintage Families—that I wanted to pass on the camera, and empower others, towards an inter-collaborative filmmaking process with me, and to film me if they wanted to. I was there for three months in Salvador da Bahia, documenting the Brazilian festivals that climax in carnival. The religious festivals, based on West African, but more specifically Yoruba deities—Oshun, the pantheon of deities that migrated from Western Africa to the New World. When I came back, I got a call that my film VINTAGE – Families of Value, even though it was rejected by almost all African American festivals in America, was selected to screen at the Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou (FESPACO) in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. This was 1997. They flew me from Salvador da Bahia all the way to Ouagadougou. I screened there and continued to shoot. I took my camera there as well.

So I came back from Ouagadougou directly to Salvador da Bahia. I got to see this place in Brazil, essentially Africa in America, the largest concentration of black folks in the Americas. I got to see in that one trip both through an American perspective, coming from North America to South America, but also from West Africa to Salvador, before I came home. I had this experience. It changed the way I thought about things, but also the way I was filming. And I came back, I was filming with Super 8, because when I went to Brazil—in VINTAGE – Families of Value I had used Super 8 with a lot of the fantasy material. I didn’t use footage of people talking, because there had been a lot of talking between the siblings. I decided to move forward with this nonverbal kind of performative narrative. I grew up in Tanzania, we didn’t know Swahili very well, I traveled all around. The Chinese were coming in and building. British were leaving. There was all this dialogue happening even though it wasn’t always linguistic.

Moses: What do you mean by that?

Harris: Without it having to be human dialogue, I wanted to explore this kind of communication, cross-culturally. A visual kind of investigation. And I came back with the Super 8 film, all silent. And then started writing my script. I didn’t know what the script was going to be. And then I struggled and struggled and struggled. And then at last, I had a waking dream.

Production still from É a Minha Cara (That’s My Face), 2001
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Moses: When did you have the waking dream?

Harris: This is two years later. In 1997 my grandfather died. In 1999 I had a waking dream, I went to his basement, I found more Super 8 material. Because I had just had two reels, after I’d been trying to edit this film, trying to figure out what this film is about, and I knew that it was É Minha Cara. It’s a colloquial expression that means: “That’s my face.” If we look alike and could be part of a family—É Minha Cara—we look similar. It could be familiarity, similarity, or attraction. You could see someone on the street—É Minha Cara—cruising someone. I had this kind of thing that’s all about that filming without the sound. It was about what am I attracted to and why. My face. What am I looking for and why?

I came back and tried to put this into a coherent argument in the film and a script. And I realized that my mom made a similar journey when she took us to Tanzania in the 1970s. And that my grandfather also had wanted to go to Africa, but he was never able to go. And so I was trying to write about these three generations, but I didn’t have any visuals. Then I had a waking dream. I was living in San Diego, I was teaching at the University of California in San Diego as an assistant professor, and I came back to the Bronx and I went to my grandfather’s basement and I found hours and hours of Super 8 that documented our family as we went from being “colored” to embracing a Pan-African aesthetic with my stepdad, who followed us to Tanzania. And so if I had not gone to Brazil, I would not have looked for the material. And I looked for it for two years. And boom! It happened.

Moses: What happened after you found the hours of footage?

Harris: I was basically able to tell my story through my grandfather’s archive. And then I found my stepdad’s archive. I thought he had thrown it away, because something had happened. They transferred the material to this awful video, and then threw out the Super 8. But he hadn’t! And so I was able to transfer all of the Super 8 and tell the story. I didn’t know that when I was doing my Super 8 that I would be even remotely thinking about going back to my family’s material.

Production still from Through A Lens Darkly, 2014
Courtesy Chimpanzee Productions, Inc.

Moses: How did your work with archives emerge?

Harris: Over three generations. Multiple stories. Me and my grandfather and my mother on one hand, with the auditory story, and then me, my stepfather, and my grandfather in terms of the visual story, because we were shooting. So that’s how that emerged. I also found some other material there as well. I still need to go look for some others. That’s typically how my work with the archive emerges. With the exception of Through a Lens Darkly—it’s a little bit different. In Through a Lens Darkly, I was starting with the national archive—or not so much the national but rather the Black photographic archive. I was aware of my family archive, started with that, but went back to look at things in a completely different way. For instance, with Through a Lens Darkly I juxtapose the abundance of images that my grandfather had taken with the paucity of images that my father had taken.

Moses: Returning to an earlier point in the interview, the family album as a literal object can be stored in a place: a house; a suitcase. It is dated by names, marginalia, or timestamps printed with the photographs. It can defined by the cameras and what printing paper was used. How well or how badly it was stored. However, through our conversation, you present another understanding of the family album. Can you say more about it?

Harris: One way of framing it is the album is a metaphor as opposed to being literal. It is an archive. It is what one chooses to produce. What one chooses to keep. How one creates one’s archive. And all those things both physical and invisible. [In Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela] the story is told through an expanded concept of family. It’s a literal family: Lee’s [Harris’s stepfather B. Pule Leinaeng] family, including us in Harlem, and in Johannesburg. The family of twelve Bloemfontein comrades that he left South Africa with to meet Nelson Mandela in Tanzania. Then the larger South African family. The land, diaspora, and family between South Africa and America. In order to strengthen that circle, I had to fill my part of the circle.

Serubiri Moses has written and published internationally. His research, curation, and programming have taken place in Accra, Berlin, Cali, Kampala, and Nairobi.

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