The Transformative Artistic Legacy of Michael Harris

By D. Amari Jackson

There’s the creative process, first of all, that is always involved. It’s not just political. And in the creative process… I think you have an ethereal dialogue with your work. And this work talks back and forth to you, once you are tuned in to your own voice. And when I came back from Bahia, I was trying to do a piece. It’s called A Velha Preta. Bahia. A Velha Preta, which means the old black woman. And I tried to make that piece blue, because I was feeling Yemenja, the goddess of the sea. But the painting would not let me paint it blue. It would not work until I changed the color. And then, once I got to the right color scheme, the painting opened up. And I can’t explain it in any way that makes logical sense. But if you paint or you write music, you know what I mean. Sometimes that unlocks it… that’s a part of this process that we all go through. That’s why you can see our individual voices in our work. And we share… we share this understanding of the process, and then we focus on the part that we can talk about…”                                       

Dr. Michael Harris on AFRICOBRA. in a 2010 interview with TV Land/Hudson Street Productions, archive at the Smithsonian

Few were qualified to speak as intimately about the creative process as Michael DeHart Harris regularly did. An accomplished artist, photographer, poet, curator, and art historian, the 73-year-old Harris succumbed to cancer on July 11, leaving a remarkable legacy in his wake.

With several master’s degrees and a Ph.D. in History of Art from Yale University, Harris was one of the few African American scholars to hold terminal degrees in studio art, African American Studies, and art history. A member of the legendary artist collective, AfriCOBRA, since 1979, the Atlanta resident taught at numerous universities including Emory, Duke, Wellesley, Georgia State, Spelman, Morehouse, Dillard, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Along with the likes of David Driskell, James Porter, and Samella Lewis, Harris was honored as one of “25 Who Made a Difference,” a select list of curators and scholars celebrated in the fall 2001 issue of the prestigious International Review of African American Art. He published numerous award-winning books and articles on the intersections of art and race, exhibited his art throughout the world, and served on several boards including the Arts Council for the African Studies Association, the National Board of the National Conference of Artists, and the Editorial Board of the International Review of African American Art.

Self Portrait by Michael D. Harris

“He was a very talented artist and art historian, and it’s seldom you find an art historian that is a good artist too,” points out artist Kevin Cole, a colleague, friend, and fellow AfriCOBRA member. Cole met Harris in the 1980s when both taught at Georgia State. “Some of the discussions that we would get into about art, art history, and artists’ work were very deep,” he recalls, before acknowledging Harris’s quilts, prints, and mixed media creations and how the two would swap works. “I responded to a lot to his quilts and his works on paper, and I have one of his installations,” reveals Cole, noting “I have that because we traded.”

“Michael was proficient in all of the mediums that he stuck his toes into,” says Napoleon Jones-Henderson, artist, friend, and also a member of AfriCOBRA. Jones-Henderson promotes how Harris was emblematic of all the artists in their select group as each can “easily transition” between mediums, given “that’s the kind of collective freedom we share with each other.” Upon praising Harris’s prowess in their shared discipline of quilting, Jones-Henderson reiterates his late friend’s proficiency in multiple forms, “including his installation features and the use of various pieces of found or existing materials—like, say, a table, a cabinet, or some other instrument—along with the painting and the use of many other kinds of materials together as an ensemble to produce the final piece.”

“So Michael was an image maker, and that’s what all of us are, image makers,” continues Jones-Henderson, noting that “whether we are using sculptural forms or quilted forms or painting” or making use of other materials, “the overarching importance is what that work is saying, and what it is that work represents.”

But first came the art of sport, given it ran in Harris’ blood. His maternal grandfather, William DeHart Hubbard, won the gold medal for the long jump at the 1924 Olympics in Paris, becoming the first African American to claim gold in an individual sport. A year later, Hubbard set a world record in the long jump while also tying the world record in the 100-yard dash. And, in 1934, the all-around athlete established the Cincinnati Tigers, a professional baseball team of the Negro American League.

Like his accomplished grandfather, Harris showed an interest in baseball. In college, he played shortstop on the baseball team at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. But unlike Hubbard, Harris’s interest in athletics ultimately succumbed to his love of art.

“My grandfather was a very prominent man,” acknowledged Harris, in the 2010 interview with TV Land/Hudson Street Productions. Characterizing him as “brilliant” and “a wonderful person,” Harris depicted how Hubbard “would bring the cardboards that they folded his white shirts around in the laundry to me from the time I was three, and I drew on them.” He noted it “was just something I did. Never thought about it. So art was always in me. It was always something that I felt comfortable doing.” However, continued Harris, “I just didn’t focus on it as a possibility, because when I was young, you never saw black artists. You never saw art that spoke in that way. So I knew classic art and I loved the art, but I never saw myself in it, until I got to college. And then I began to consider it as a career option.” 

Michael D. Harris, Benny Andrews, Wadsworth Jarrell
PHOTO CREDIT – Jim Alexander

Upon graduating from Bowling Green, Harris attended Howard University where he received his MFA in Painting in 1979, the same year he became a member of AfriCOBRA. Commonly referred to as the “Black Panthers of the art world,” AfriCOBRA selected its members through an invite-only process based on the quality and relevance of an artist’s work. Though the group has always been serious about its promotion of a Black aesthetic, self-determination, and universal Black liberation, Harris was known to lighten the mood. “Michael liked to tell jokes so, before every meeting, I would call for the joke of the day,” remembers a chuckling Cole. “Man, he knew tons of jokes. I mean tons of jokes. So it was one of those fun relationships.” 

What was not a joke was Harris’s deep belief in the role that both art and AfriCOBRA could play in transforming its practitioners and the world around them. “One friend of mine said, ‘art is an ultimate act of love,” relayed Harris, in the 2010 interview. “Another friend has the phrase that I like, is ‘art is a verb.’ If it is radical to affirm people of African descent, then the society we live in is very sick. If that healthy attitude is radical, the society we live in has serious problems,” stressed Harris, promoting that AfriCOBRA’s art “is not about destruction. It’s about construction. It’s about affirmation. It’s about talking about who we are. Which is what art does. What art should do. Talk about who we are, who we can be, who we want to be.”

About the same time he joined AfriCOBRA, Harris became an artist-in-residence at Atlanta’s recently established Neighborhood Arts Center. Developed in the mid-1970s from Mayor Maynard Jackson’s creation of the Bureau of Cultural Affairs, the center served as a national model for how the arts could raise the profile and value of a city while supporting the participation of its traditionally marginalized groups. At the center, Harris networked and made acquaintances with the likes of Maya Angelou, Romare Bearden, Peabo Bryson, Max Roach, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Nunn, Toni Cade Bambara, Ebon Dooley, Alice Lovelace, future mayor Shirley Franklin, and renowned photographer Jim Alexander.

“At that time, Michael was doing some silk screening, some collages, and a lot of different types of stuff,” remembers Alexander, of his fellow photographer and friend. In 2011, Harris curated the exhibit, “Black Music After 1968: The Photography of Jim Alexander,” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Art and Culture in Charlotte, NC. “The Neighborhood Arts Center was the type of space that was a gathering place,” says Alexander. “A lot of the artists, no matter what your medium was, whether you were a visual artist, dancer, drum, or whatever, we always somehow ended up meeting in somebody’s studio, in the hallway, or out on the yard. It was that type of relationship.”

Harris—a musician himself, who played the alto saxophone and incorporated musical themes in his art—continued his studies while teaching at several universities. In 1989, he earned another master’s in African American Studies from Yale University before ultimately receiving his Ph.D. in Art History from Yale in 1996. He’d spend 11 years as an associate professor of African and African-American art history at UNC Chapel Hill, also serving as the consulting curator for the Gantt Center in Charlotte.

In 2000, Harris was a co-author of the first major textbook for African art, A History of Art in Africa. And in 2003, Harris published, Colored Pictures: Race and Visual Representation, one of the first books addressing critical issues in African-American art rather than a monograph or survey. The book won two national awards, including an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. To this day, Colored Pictures is still being used as a course text by major universities across the country.

“Michael is a substantial figure within the scholarship of African-American and African world aesthetics and thought,” stresses Jones-Henderson, clarifying “I say the world because it’s not just local in terms of the Western hemisphere, but international, as is the whole sense of aesthetics with AfriCOBRA. You see that even more astutely when one looks at his work. His scholarship and intellect—in terms of literature, his writing, and thinking—is as apparent in his visual work as it is between the two covers of his books. And when you pick up any one of his books and read them, you are having a visual and visceral experience given the augmented visual material he includes to support the writing that’s in the text.”

“So his impact was multifaceted,” affirms Jones-Henderson. “Michael was a consummate thinker and clearly someone who was clear in his thinking and clear in his writing.”   

Michael D. Harris, Carrie Mae Weems, Edward S. Spriggs
PHOTO CREDIT – Jim Alexander

Harris would go on to serve as Consulting Curator for African American Art at Atlanta’s High Museum, as a curator of select exhibitions at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, and as an associate professor of art history at Emory University. But even with his many accomplishments and major contributions to the respective fields of African and African American art, his true impact is, perhaps, measured in simpler terms.

“He was always interested in moving other artists along,” acknowledges Alexander, citing the numerous artists Harris showcased, mentored, and put a spotlight on. He recounts how Harris was “very much involved in AfriCOBRA” and its quest to empower the African-American community through art. That organization, adds Alexander, “was one of Michael’s loves.”

Fortunately, we can further rely upon Harris’s own words to clarify his lifelong love for art, the role it played in his remarkable life, and its ongoing impact on our world.

“Art for me, generally, is a way to articulate my experience, my social reality and experience, my larger cultural reality,” explained Harris, in the 2010 interview with TV Land/Hudson Street Productions. “So I sort of am an individual within the context of my larger associations and affiliations. And my art allows me to express that. And I got into it, hoping, at a certain point, to make a difference. You know, to make a difference in the world. To make a difference in my community. To represent people who maybe weren’t represented.”

“And so… art is a verb,” Harris affirmed, with a laugh. “It works. It does things. And I think sometimes in the contemporary world, we lose sight of that… that art has always, for humans, been a means of doing something. Of making something happen. Or at least having the illusion, the sense, that you could make something happen in your world. And from my study, I know that it makes a difference. I know that it has an impact. I know it changes people. It affects people.”

“The Yoruba have a word for art: ‘ona,” continued Harris. “And ona is about the transformation of material into a higher form, more energy, releasing more ashe. And it also begins to, metaphorically, reflect the potential to transform the human into a higher state. A higher consciousness.”

“And so I hope, in some way, to be a participant in that process.”

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AMARI JACKSON  is a creator, author, TV/web/film producer, and award-winning journalist. He is author of the 2011 novel, The Savion Sequence; creator/writer/coproducer of the 2012-2014 web series The Book Look; writer/coproducer of the 2016 film Edge of the Pier; and current writer/coproducer of Listen Up! on HBCU GO/Roku TV. He is a former Chief of Staff for a NJ State Senator; a former VP of Communications & Development for the Jamestown Project at Harvard University; and a recipient of several writing fellowships including the George Washington Williams Fellowship from the Independent Press Association. An active ghost writer, song writer, martial artist, and journalist, his writings have appeared in a wide variety of national and regional publications.

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