Artist Thomas Allen Harris on Black Gay Identity
The varied issues of Africans and African-Americans is the point of "AfroPoP: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange," an innovative series that airs on the documentary channel WORLD and is hosted by The Daily Show's Wyatt Cenak. Each episode is really a full-length documentary telling a different story, from the effort to get Africans hooked on solar energy to a profile on the queen of Calypso music. Sunday's episodic film, That's My Face, is directed by Thomas Allen Harris, a prolific gay artist and producer who's shown work at the Whitney Biennial and won Guggenheim and Sundance fellowships. Harris spoke to us about his Brazilian-based film, his childhood in Africa, and some of the projects he's working on through his company, Chimpanzee Productions.
The Advocate: Can you talk about "AfroPoP" and your film in it?
Harris: "AfroPoP" is a series being produced by the National Black Programming Consortium, a part of the minority consortium of PBS. They’ve had this series for the last three years where they pick a certain number of films for the show. This year there are four different films, and my film, That’s My Face, is one of them. (Click here to find out where "AfroPoP" is airing near you.)
In the movie, I go to the Bahia region of Brazil. I was looking for another way of experiencing myself, kind of like a spiritual journey that Gertrude Stein and James Baldwin had when they went to Europe. I lived in Europe and knew what that was like, so I went to Brazil. I was looking for what being black in the Americas was like outside of the U.S. Brazil has more African-Brazilians than the U.S. has African-Americans. It’s also been interesting to me because I partly grew up in East Africa. The Black-Brazilians were able to keep a lot more of their African roots through language and, most importantly, through religion. I was very intrigued by their religious practices, some of which are very welcoming to gays and lesbians. It’s very different than what you hear in the press about what’s going in regards to the persecution of gays and lesbians in Africa.
Had you been to Bahia before?
I had been there before so I had experienced it. The time I went to make That’s My Face was the beginning of December. From December all the way to February in the south coast of Bahia are all these public festivals that are inspired by these African deities and also Carnivale. I was really doing my search in the middle of all this spectacular stuff. These Bahia festivals are very different than the Carnivale in Rio. The latter is sort of a show and the Carnivale in Bahia takes over the whole city—all the shops close, with the exception of places selling beer and food. It becomes a whole different world. Everything was sped up during the festival because the drums play all the night. In Brazil, the drums weren’t outlawed when Africans were brought over, like they were in the U.S. So people in the U.S. weren’t able to pass on certain aspects of religion and communication. The drum is an important part of religious expression. Through the drums, people start dancing and enter this trance. It’s transformative, and you’ll see that in the film.
You lived in Tanzania as a child. What do you remember of that time?
I remember people living close to the land. I went to a national school, with the local Tanzanians. We had to clean the toilets and work on the farm. It was an African socialist country at the time, so the kids had to clean and cook.
When I was growing up there, intimacy between men was permissable. With my friends, we could walk down the streets holding hands. Even if you hold your hands with brother in the U.S., you could get killed. There's a very narrow way of how men can act in the U.S. What was also interesting, is that the capital of Tanzania, Dar es Salaam, is so cosmopolitan. I had friends from India, Uganda, the Philippines, England, China. It was very different than the picture we have in our minds of Africa. It made me really want to see the world and played into me wanting to go to Brazil.
The U.S. and the U.K. have started applying pressure on African nations to end the criminalization of homosexuality. Do you think that’s helping?
It’s really important that the West get clear and articulate that attacks on gays and lesbians are human rights violations. The marriage equality effort here, it legitimizes the struggle in Africa, and also in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. These countries are using gays and lesbians as scapegoats. In Africa, it’s not simply the African leadership that makes the violent crimes possible, it’s the missionaries who say homosexuality is an evil import from the West.
Do you have a favorite work of art that you’ve done, be it a movie or an installation?
I have a video installation coming up at the Long Beach Museum of Art. It’s also connected in some ways to That’s My Face. It brings together three different public festivals — a festival of the goddess of the ocean in Brazil, a beach festival in Los Angeles that brings black gays together from all over the diaspora, and the Pan-African film festival in Burkina-Faso. The installation weaves all of the events together in one space. I’m very proud of it.
That’s My Face is important as an artistic statement, but also as an archive that says we are here as a people. I’m working on a film right now about black photographers, Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People. It fills in a missing chapter of us as Americans. During segregation, a lot of pictures of African-Americans were not part of the national portrait of America. There were also thousands of African-American photographers. When I was going to school at Harvard, the books we looked at didn’t have a single black photographer. That film is filling in that missing chapter of our history.
Also, Digital Diaspora Family Reunion is a multimedia community and engagement initiative that was launched during pre-production of Through A Lens Darkly. It's evolved concurrently through the last four years of production, creating a new model for interactive filmmaking. DDFR.tv is an interactive portal through which participants gather and create stories around their family photographs. It consists of an interactive website, an active social media community, a traveling road show, and a mobile app that encourages people to embrace the universality of our human experience and better engage the present to shape our future. Out of the DDFR project, I helped make a short documentary on marriage equality from an African-American experience entitled Marriage Equality: Byron Rushing and the Fight for Fairness.
Read more about Harris's work here. Watch a teaser of That's My Face below.