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Documenting life on the Ghana shore

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 14, 2008 10:21 AM

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Untitled (Kokrobitey #3
"Untitled (Kokrobitey #3)" by Lyle Ashton Harris

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent

Photographer Lyle Ashton Harris is best known for his self-portraits - unnerving, provocative pieces in which he dons costumes to push at the edges of Americans' assumptions about race and sexuality. Lately, though, Harris has been working in Ghana, photographing street scenes, markets, and the beach.

The crisp, expansive documentary photographs on view in "Sketches From the Shore," his exhibit at Harvard's Du Bois Institute, engage with a different kind of intensity than the self-portraits, some of which are also here. They breathe, where the self-portraits take your breath away. They're lush with movement, vivid colors, the bustle of the marketplace, and often the inevitable signals of globalization: cellphones and familiar ads.

"Untitled (Kokrobitey #3)" depicts a beached boat in a shore town near Accra. The mast is down and hung with drying garments. Men linger on board; women, some carrying large baskets, stand nearby. The generous sun seems to light up the vivid tones of people's clothing like jewels.

Harris shot some of the photos here of Ghanaians for The New York Times Magazine. Journalism is a different game than art; it strives not to overlay the photographer's opinion on what he shoots. The work Harris makes as an artist is comparatively crammed with ambiguity, hurt, and opinion.

"Black Ebony" borrows an image from the December 2007 cover of Ebony magazine celebrating the 25th anniversary of Michael Jackson's "Thriller." Jackson, with his Peter Pan persona and seeming retreat from his own blackness, is prime material for Harris. The artist's source material was journalism as inadvertent art: The headline right beside Jackson's fey mug reads "Inside: The Africa You Don't Know," words that conjure a colonial-era, "Heart of Darkness"-style mystery.

Harris has made a painting of this magazine cover on Ghanaian funerary fabric. The juxtaposition of the fading (in more ways than one) King of Pop with undiscovered Africa comes displayed on a traditional textile that signifies passing and grief. It's a remarkable piece, powerful and sly.

Mixing media

Jennifer Liston Munson's pieces at Judi Rotenberg Gallery are hybrids of photographs and paintings. Munson travels with a Polaroid SX-70, which takes thumbnail-size photos. She enlarges them into blurry abstractions, then appends paintings which expand upon the image in the photograph. The hazy, tonal photos are intended to create a sense of familiarity, a memory not quite grasped, a glance.

Sometimes the painting response to the photo coalesces into a vivid duet; sometimes it looks more as if the artist is trying too hard to stretch one image into the next. "Billboard in Seville" works well: The photo is a long horizontal filled with glowing, sepia-toned verticals, which Munson underlines with a long bar concretely painted with related tones of golds, greens, and blacks. The shimmer of the photo snaps into something more solid, and yet more abstract, in the painting below.

"Seville Billboard II" does not work as well. The forms and colors in the photo - a passage of red behind a pole, a haze of butter yellow, a smudge of brown - extend awkwardly into the painting, as if Munson is trying to draw a single picture with her two media, rather than play one against the other. Then, the painting juts more into the viewer's space than the photo does, which seems jarring and unintentional. When the pairing of photo with canvas is architecturally seamless and visually unanticipated, Munson succeeds - and that's about half the time.


Lyle Ashton Harris: Sketches From the Shore
Through Jan. 15
Neil L. and Angelica Rudenstine Gallery
W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research
Harvard University
104 Mount Auburn St., 3R

Jennifer Liston Munson: Glance
Through Dec. 23
Judi Rotenberg Gallery
130 Newbury St.

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