Since 2005, artist Lyle Ashton Harris has divided his time between New York City and the African city of Accra in Ghana, where he spends six months out of every year. His work on view at Kennesaw State University’s Fine Arts Gallery, curated by Kirstie Tepper, blends personal fixations and a vision of Africa that is both revealing, titillating and, occasionally, frightening.
The exhibition’s titular installation, “Accra My Love II,” is a sprawling, circular work assembled onto several walls of the gallery that explores themes of death, sex, crime, nationality, identity and celebrity swirled into one heady mix. Imagine Times Square or a bank of televisions all turned to different channels, and you get a sense of the cacophony of imagery and ideas unfurling all at once in this artwork.
Ghana in Harris’ eyes is a place that is both strange — with distinct approaches to death and grieving, for instance — but also familiar, where references to Michael Jackson, the Internet and tabloid newspapers strike a familiar chord. Using found objects, including photographs, newspaper clippings, magazine stories, painting, fabric, signage and sculptural elements, Harris creates a frenzied evocation of a country and its citizens. That sprawling installation is just one component in a multimedia show that also includes video work, photography and — for those apt to linger — fat comfy pillows to perch upon for continued reflection.
Considering how many years Harris has spent in Ghana and how rich it, or any culture, is, it is not surprising that Harris’ show feels like merely a fragment of a larger puzzle. There are moments of insight into time and place, but much of the show unfolds in a blur, like a whirlwind one-day bus tour of a city that gives you a fleeting sense of access, but never a feeling of real comprehension. By the same token, Harris’ work itself is a complex matter to unpack and comprehend. The exhibition includes not only references to Ghana, but to Harris’ own artistic practice, with still images included in the “Accra My Love II” installation of some of Harris’ performance pieces.
There are certain ideas that emerge in the show, one of the strongest being a sense of collage, and how meaning can be conveyed in layers and in juxtaposition. That is true not only in the riot of images in “Accra My Love II,” but also in the three-part video work “Untitled (Black Power),” which focuses on an outdoor community gym in Ghana where chiseled, buff men glistening with sweat exercise, but also preen and pose in front of both Harris’ camera and the long mirror in which they survey themselves.
A moving collage forms, in which space is broken up into actual space and reflected space. The other dominant theme in Harris’ work here is desire. Harris’ videos and his installation present copious images of virile young men posing like magazine centerfolds, flexing muscles or mugging for the camera. In a series of six photographs from the “Jamestown Prison Erasure” series, Harris also deals with desire — in this case, desire for things beyond the walls of a prison cell. The artist has photographed the cracked and worn walls of a now abandoned Ghanaian prison onto which prisoners have pasted images of luxury cars, beautiful women, Jesus and other emblems of a yearned for, better life.
“Accra My Love” offers its audience a related sensation of desire: a desire to understand and make sense of the cacophony the artist has laid out before us. Sometimes that desire is rewarded, oftentimes not. Whether the journey was worth it is in the eye of the beholder.
“Lyle Ashton Harris: Accra My Love”
Through April 24. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7-9 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Free. Fine Arts Gallery, Joe Mack Wilson Building, 1000 Chastain Road, Kennesaw State University. 770-499—3223.
Bottom line: Often difficult to engage with, this solo show by a significant New York artist paints a fleeting, intriguing vision of the African country of Ghana and its influence on his work.