Artist’s Manifesto

—Theodore Harris

I’ll begin by talking about my use of one of the symbols of our republic, the United States Capitol building, and the effect poetry has had on my work. When people ask me why do I turn the image of the U.S. Capitol building upside down in my collages, as if it were a bomb, my short answer is: It’s upside down because they’re upside down; or even now, I can point to the two thousand one presidential election of George W. Bush by the Supreme Court and NOT THE PEOPLE! (I can’t think of anything more upside down than that). But before I could make these kinds of statements in my work, there were visual artist such as Charles White, Diego Rivera, Howardena Pindell, Romare Bearden, Elizabeth Catlett, Betty Leacraft, John Heartfield, Leroy Johnson, Vincent Smith, Hans Haacke, Juan Sanchez, Leon Goulb, Pat Ward Williams, Jacob Lawrence, Adrian Piper and writers such as Sonia Sanchez, Lamont B. Steptoe, James Baldwin, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Comrade Askia M. Toure, Amiri Baraka, Pablo Neruda, Ernesto Cardenal, Haki Madhubuti, Frank Chipasula, Dennis Brutus and David Diop who taught me how to use metaphor in a very powerful way, that would cause the viewer to go beyond the surface and look deeper.

Diop, a poet writing in the time of the Negritude literary revolution, wrote a poem titled ÀFor a Black Child”; here’s a stanza: “In the land where houses touch the sky /In the land where hands are laid on the Bible /But the Bible is not opened.” Diop wrote these clear-visioned words in response to the lynching of fifteen year old Emmett Till, who was killed in Money, Mississippi in1955 by two white men for “wolf whistling” at the wife of the murderer Roy Bryant and step-brother J. W. Milam, who never served a day in jail for the crime. Professor Clenora Hudson-Weems has written a detailed account of the Till case in her book titled Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement. Along with the text in her study of the Till case there are photographs including one that I’d call the perfect picture of irony: it is a picture of Mamie Bradley, Tills’ mother, with relatives and a Bishop climbing the steps of the Capitol building, pointing at it, with the look of hope on their faces. These na‚ve seekers of justice and democracy must not have known that America still had not, and has not to this day, outlawed lynching! My point is that greatest artists, such as David Diop, record the time in which they live, and I aim to do this with visual art, to make social commentary in a visual language.

The other observation I’ve made, is that whenever I’m watching the news on television being reported from the nation’s capital, Washington D.C., the person doing the reporting always has the U.S. capitol building behind them, as a backdrop, set design, in the theatre of white supremacy. As I’m viewing this, I hear the words from a Sonia Sanchez poem titled “right on: wite America”:

this country might have
been a pio
                 neer land
                but.      there ain’t
no mo
                indians      blowing
custer’s mind
                with a different
image of america.
                 this country
might have
                 needed shoot /
outs / daily /
                        but there ain’t
no mo real / wite / allamerican
                u & me
                         blk / and un/armed.
this country might have
been a pion
                eer land.           once.
                                            and it still is.
check out
                 the falling
gun/shells            on our blk/ tomorrows.

After reading this consciousness-raising poem, I felt as if I was being hunted everywhere. I had to check out my surroundings: where was I being hunted, why was I being hunted, for how long? What I found out, was that it is the bricks of our black and red bones that built this country’s capitol and its capital. From then on I knew I had to strike back with the only weapon I had: my art. With my pen or scissors I would avenge the senseless deaths of my ancestors, I would indict America in the courtroom of my own opinion: HERE IN THESE UNITED AGAINST US STATES WHERE INTERROGATION ROOMS NEVER CLOSE, POLICE AT THE MT.CALVARY CORRECTIONAL FACILITY PUT SILENCERS ON CRUCIFIXION NAILS, BEAT US INTO INTERSTELLAR SPACE WITH WET TELEPHONE BOOKS, GIVE RECTAL EXAMINATIONS WITH TOILET PLUNGERS IN THEIR PRECINCT BATHROOMS! When I look at the history of this country, and our involvement in it as African-Americans, always struggling to get from under the slave ships, the whips, the chains, the Prisons, the nightsticks, the Patriot Act police, which is aiding in “The nazification of America” says Toni Morrison, by trying to gas independent thinkers in ovens of character assassination, rulers, with bombs & bullets of imperialism aimed at un-armed protesters fire-hosed with the slobber of barking dogs! It is because of that I became a confrontational collagist, engaged in visual war faire. For my question is who is going to fight in the visual arts or literature against the mayor gargoyle Gullianis’s of the world, who have made it clear that our vetoed dreams don’t count, as Amiri Baraka said: ÀEvery day what becomes clearer and clearer is the desperation of this system. The United States bourgeoisie reminds me of a man running away from a lion, who keeps throwing out pieces of meat until finally his little bag is empty and the only piece of meat left is himself.” Or, in the words of Ngugi Wa Thiongo: “Art is more powerful when working as an ally of the powerless than it is when allied to repression. For its essential nature is freedom. While that of the state is restriction and regulation of freedom.” If Amiri and Ngugi are wrong, go back and check out the April 2003 issue of Harper’s Magazine that reported: “On January 27, 2003, a tapestry of Pablo Picasso’s epic painting Guernica that hangs at the entrance of the Security Council of the United Nations in New York City was deemed an inappropriate background for press briefings about the possibility of a war in Iraq. It was therefore draped.” Actions like these by the state let me know I’m aiming my combative collages in the right direction. I now see my work functioning as visual poetic essays. When folks view my work, I want them to come away with the strength to keep on holding on to these fraying ropes of struggle. I hope that what I’m creating is purposeful for people to use in this racial and class struggle, as a weapon, in this fight that poet Lamont B. Steptoe calls a “low intensity war” in which we battle everyday for our lives and the lives of our children. In my most recent work (done for those with eyes unable to see America is imploding on itself), I have inverted the Pentagon building, turning it into a wounded guillotine. That’s the function of my art, to be a fogless mirror, reflecting the reality of our lives, the exiled from exile.