Lyle Ashton Harris
Lyle Ashton Harris began employing self-portraiture in his practice in the 1980s as a way to further explore dissonance and identity beyond his well-known oeuvre of portrait work. Ecstasy #2 (1987) and Americas (1987–88), photographs from Harris’s White Face series (1987–88) are palimpsests, black-and-white images inscribed with multilayered ruminations on and subversions of ethnicity, gender, and sexual desire. Ecstasy #2 follows Ecstasy #1 (1987–88); both self-portraits depict Harris’s wide-open mouth, naked torso, tensed limbs while he wears whiteface, deliberately manipulating the viewer’s ability to definitively pinpoint the gender and ethnic identity displayed. As curator Okuwi Enwezor highlights in his assessment of Harris’s work, whiteface originated in the 19th century through vaudeville and minstrelsy where it portrayed “an American racial archetype [that] reflected the racial and sexual anxieties that often accompanied the public discourse of race.”¹ The photographs also invoke the notion of passing, an act, often carried out under duress, of forsaking one’s ethnicity to assimilate into a more socially acceptable group.
Throughout his work, and especially in this early series, Harris uses his own body to probe collective ideas about black and queer identities, rather than individual autobiography. For Harris, portraiture is a strategy of question, declaration, and provocation as well as a practice that symbolically extends the life of the subjects posed in front of the camera and calls attention to the fiction of the constructed image, and constructed selfhood. In Americas, a precursor to the bodies captured by Paris Is Burning (1990), Jennie Livingston’s documentary on New York’s mid-to-late-1990s drag balls, Harris performs in front of his camera, thrusting and retreating simultaneously. His peroxide-blonde wig and heavy makeup both elide and exaggerate his features, using the space of the photograph as a site of shifting indexical value. The triptych depicts a series of nudes: Harris alone in one image; alongside Kym in a second image; and absent in the third, giving the frame over to Miss America, a black female nude draped in the stars and stripes and also in whiteface. The relationship between the figures as well as the one between the subjects and the viewer are ambiguous. Harris’s and Kym’s eyes look forward, quixotically engaging the viewer and invoking the slippery dynamics of the gaze as a means with which to inscribe identity; Miss America is captured in motion, perhaps straining away from that same gaze.