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April 17, 2005

Who Was That Masquerating Man? (Lyle Ashton Harris @ The Studio Museum in Harlem)

On March 17, Keith and I went up to Harlem to see a performance by Lyle Ashton Harris. Fans of his photographs, we had had no idea what to expect of the performance. We got there early, but still too late to get a good seat (the museum was packed -- people ended up seated on the 2nd floor looking down), so we ended up sitting on a single row behind the back aisle. Friends in the audience included Sandra Jackson (who programs the Vital Expressions series), Deborah Willis, Kellie Jones, Tonya Foster, Monica Hand, and Thomas Allen Harris -- the ever-smiling, generous and brilliant filmmaker and brother to Lyle, who had a camera in tow. We spoke to all in anticipation (which, perhaps, worsened our likelihood of getting a good seat). Anyway, the performance began with a video of another performance. In the video, Michael Jackson could be heard singing "Ben". How can I describe what happened next? A man (Harris, but not Harris) came in on a wheelchair, in a diaper. Or maybe he was clothed and stripped down to a diaper. It was a classroom. He wrecked shop -- sat on people's laps, ate food, fed other people, and made them read a text about homophobia. The video was fascinating, but it was also something else. From the corner of my eye I saw a wheelchair on my right and a foot sticking out. No one who was not seated on the back row could see this and I didn't think anyone else was looking. It was inching up further and further. I had the knowing suspicion that we were going to see a repeat of the event and I was wanted simultaneously to see what was going to happen and to escape. I wasn't afraid of Harris, but of the form he was about to take. Maybe it will be different, I hoped. I didn't want him to strip, sit on my lap, or feed me potato chips. I hoped whatever he did would be at the front of the audience and I could just watch.

As the wheelchair inched along, and the body became more visible, I thought it was Harris, but could not tell. There he was, his face, and it was relatively clear that this was a performing (or at least performative) body -- a spectacle -- but he did not look like himself or like the other performer on the screen. He inched along, inched up the aisle, frightening spectators as he grabbed onto them to get himself up the aisle. This time he was an old man. He had a few props, only a few of which I remember. He had a radio, playing funk this time. He had a drum, which he played between his legs. He had high heels, which he wore as he attempted to step up on a chair to play the drum. He had some other things I couldn't see from the back. He didn't make us eat anything, but he did make us dance. One woman, he grabbed by the arm. Then he went back down the aisle, playing the drum. The whole performance lasted about fifteen minutes.

Afterwards, K & I went to eat with Tonya Foster and talked about Harlem, art & poetry, and the performance. Tonya overheard 2 comments from different audience members that summed up the performance for all of us. Now, this was a month ago and I can't quite remember what they were, but they were something like "That was kind of sexy" and "That was scary as hell". Keith and I, who had been thinking about masquerades because of a project we were working on at the time (4-1-9 -- more on that later), had masquerades on the brain. Keith mentioned how Harris had really captured the essence of masquerade in making us afraid, and in making us see him as something other than himself. Because I had been closely rereading Achebe's Things Fall Apart, I had been meditating on the idea that a woman would run whenever the masquerade came before the people. Reading it, I didn't understand the idea. The video tapes I've seen of Igbo masquerades were all in American Igbo community events. They were, in essence, masquerade expos. The point is, they weren't being masquerades, they were demonstrating them. Having talked to and watched men at the performance, I don't think the desire to run in the presence of a masquerade is a female desire, but I do understand it now.

I can't say I fully understand Harris' performance yet, but I can say that something happened and I was there. I am still processing the rest.

Mendi

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copyright Mendi Lewis Obadike 2003

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