The 13th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA VOOM) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Lyle Ashton Harris, Thomas Allen Harris and Steed Taylor.
Below, Visual AIDS interviews Rajendra Roy, Chief Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, about Thomas Allen Harris' work as an artist and visual historian.
VA: How did you first meet Thomas Allen Harris, and do you have any favorite memories of your friendship or engaging his art over the years?
Roy: Thomas catalyzed my journey from California-dreamer to New York-doer starting in 1994. He had just arrived at UCSD as a young faculty member in the Visual Arts Department (where my roommates and co-conspirators Patty Chang and Aaron Krach were completing their undergraduate majors) and I was about to graduate with a BA in Political Science (not total "bs", but definitely a vestigial life-track for me at that point). Thomas took us under wing, encouraged our "fuck grad school and just move to New York" insanity, and helped us make the transition. One of the first events Patty and I attended when we arrived in New York in June '94 was an opening for Lyle (Thomas' brother), and among the many fabulous artists and arts-activists we met was Shari Frilot. She had just taken over as director of MIX, offered Patty and I internships on the spot, and the rest is queer history... Thanks Thomas honey. You started all this shit!!
VA: Can you speak to Thomas' role in the emergence and development of queer of color video practices in the 1980s and '90s, and reflect on how those practices have shaped our present?
Roy: Thomas has always insisted upon, and celebrated his own voice in his videos. At the time (early '90s), it felt like a permission slip and a challenge: Literally Do It, Say It, Be It Yourself. My own early (and often sub-par) attempts at art making in a gender-fuck mode were definitely influenced by his direct-address strategies. The accessibility of his videos (inflected, I'm sure, by his earlier work in public television) also led me to gravitate towards work that spoke in the languages of our communities; "family"-origin, gossip, street, slut, sage, club, fable, kiki-kiki, what have you...
VA: Thomas' About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer commission for Day With(out) Art 2017 was a powerful, personal reflection on his archive and practice. What is your take on the video? How do you see Thomas' artistic practice relating to the mission of Visual AIDS at the intersections of art, AIDS and activism?
Roy: Thomas is one of our great visual historians. Channelling his own story, and making it relatable to a broad assortment of queer, black/brown, sero- and gender-identifying communities has pulled people into the discussion through images. The genius of Visual AIDS has been making the indescribable visible, and Thomas has always understood that power. It's more than a mirror, it's an activist-Times Square; blasting our lives into the teeming public arena.
VA: Describe Thomas Allen Harris in a sentence.
Roy: Trickster-Seducer, such is he.
Rajendra Roy joined The Museum of Modern Art as The Celeste Bartos Chief Curator of Film in 2007, a role in which he leads the Museum’s year-round initiatives to exhibit and preserve works from its collection of about 30,000 titles. In collaboration with colleagues at MoMA and partner institutions, he has organized exhibitions including Teiji Furuhashi: Lovers (2016-17), Nan Goldin: The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (2016-17), Pedro Almodovar (2016), Bruce LaBruce (2015), Wim Wenders (2015), The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule (2013), Tim Burton (2011), and Mike Nichols (2009). For the Museum’s imprint, Mr. Roy authored (with Anke Leweke) The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule (2013).
Thomas Allen Harris is an award-winning Director whose work illuminates the Human Condition and the search for identity, family, and spirituality. Mr. Harris’ deeply personal and innovative films Through A Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People (2014), Twelve Disciples of Nelson Mandela (2005), E Minha Cara/That’s My Face(2001), VINTAGE – Families of Value (1995), have received critical acclaim at International film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Toronto, FESPACO, Outfest, Flaherty, Cape Town and Melbourne Arts Festival and have been broadcast on PBS, the Sundance Channel, ARTE, and more. Harris created About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer for ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS, Visual AIDS' video program distributed internationally for Day With(out) Art 2017.