Born in 1965 in the Bronx, New York, Lyle Ashton Harris was raised there, with a brief stint in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania (1974–76). His grandfather was an amateur photographer, and Harris was aware from an early age of the camera’s ability to create a relationship between oneself and one’s environment. He received a BA in studio art from Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut (1988), and an MFA in photography and media from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia (1990). He participated in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s independent study program (1992) and acted as a juror for the Africa Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1997.
Harris works in diverse mediums, including photography, video, installation, and performance, to explore ideas of gender, sexuality, belonging, and various cultural narratives. Teasing apart the historical objectification of the black figure in Western culture, his photographic portraits reinterpret the legacies of iconic cultural figures and also feature individuals from his life in Ghana and the United States. For Cleopatra (1994), an image of his cousin’s back and her scar from scoliosis surgery, engages the tradition of ethnographic photography and its use in cataloging difference. Ignoring the traditional subject of a portrait—the face—Harris’ focus on the back suggests his wider interest in tracing the indexical mark of trauma.
Harris stages identity as an improvisation or performance in the series Memoirs of Hadrian and Billie (both 2002), in which the artist takes on the persona of a boxer and Billie Holiday, respectively. These self-portraits were created in the famed large-format Polaroid studio in downtown Manhattan, as were his Chocolate Portraits (1998–2008), an archive ranging from the Bronx hairdresser who braided his hair to Chuck Close, Yoko Ono, and Thelma Golden, Director of the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. The anachronistic medium and manipulated lighting cast a deliberate and universal sepia shade over his sitters, playing with the viewer’s perception of the subjects’ race. Through this work, Harris gestures to photography’s 19th-century use as a tool to categorize blackness and ethnic origin, and to photographic portraiture for its compelling documentation of the New Negro movement and the Harlem Renaissance.
Beginning in 2010, Harris exhibited an ongoing series of murals titled simply Ghana. Containing hundreds of pieces of visual information—newspaper and magazine clippings, Post-It notes, photographs, and other ephemera—these wall collages investigate race, masculinity, and homophobia. Harris’s video Untitled (Black Power) (2010) documents Ghanian bodybuilders pumping iron, and when juxtaposed with the information presented in the mural, these male bodies are cast as queer, suggesting a slippage between homosocial and homosexual desires.
Harris’s solo exhibitions include presentations at the Studio Museum in Harlem, New York (2011) and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (2018). His work has been exhibited in group shows at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1994, 2007, 2010, 2016, and 2017); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (1997); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2003 and 2014); National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. (2010–11); and Los Angeles County Museum of Art (2014). Harris received a National Endowment for the Arts Regional Fellowship (1991), American Photography Award (2009), Goddard Award (2009), David C. Driskell Prize (2016), and John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship (2016), and was a fellow at the American Academy, Rome (2000). An assistant professor of art and art education at New York University, Harris lives and works in New York and Accra, Ghana.
Bio via Guggenheim Museum