Justice to Joy: Ashanti Harris Interview

We meet Ashanti Harris to discuss her multi-stranded visual arts practice uncovering everyday black history ahead of her solo show in Transmission this month

Article by Danny Pagarani | 13 Sep 2019
  • Second Site, Ashanti Harris

The scene for our conversation with Ashanti Harris is CCA's Sonic Seance: The Gathering, work created by a team of nine of which Harris is part. Harris simultaneously has a show on at Civic Room – we’ll touch on the resonance between the two sites of work throughout, providing a primer for Harris’s largest exhibition to date. This month she will reveal her show as 2019’s Scottish solo artist at Transmission Gallery, opening on 20 September. 

Active across different roles and collaborations, how does Harris begin to describe her various occupations and interests? "These days I describe myself as a sculptor – which surprises people – a sculptor, a visual artist, and I say ‘I sometimes teach dance, sometimes teach in general, sometimes facilitate things, sometimes perform, sometimes make performances.' Generally, in all areas of all of those things, I do a lot of research."

For the CCA show, Harris led reading groups and one particular text by Audre Lorde formed the basis of the conversations therein – The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action, where the phrase ‘your silence will not protect you’ originates. Harris describes the text, that it comes as Lorde finds out she has breast cancer and realises what she regrets most are the times she has silenced herself. "We’ve thought a lot about the reasons you silence yourself in the reading groups such as the idea that you will cause pain either for yourself or for other people. I love this line [Lorde] has – ‘pain either stops or changes into a different type of pain, but death is the final silence’. Ultimately you’re going to be silenced anyway so why silence yourself by worrying about the pain you might cause?"

For Harris, reading Lorde with the group was a kind of séance of Lorde's voice and all the influences that are collected into the text. For Second Site, an exhibition with performances in the Civic Room’s curatorial series Of Lovely Tyrants and Invisible Women, Harris turned to "a group of women from Guyana who were called Free Coloured Women and they or their children or their letters ended up in Scotland so in some way have a presence here. I took these women as a starting point and built stories about them by filling in the gaps between the pieces of written evidence.

"For example they came to Scotland age 12; they went to school; they won an award for penmanship; they went to London; became a single mum; their daughter nursed them; they died; they have a grave in Rosemarkie. It’s just life, but when you think of it as the life of a black woman in the 19th century in the Highlands of Scotland it becomes a really different thing. The context changes it. It’s always a funny thing when you tell people about the research, everyone asks what did they do, what did they achieve, what did they produce for us? They existed. For some people knowing of that existence is the most incredibly powerful thing given the wider circumstances."

The Civic Room itself is an old building and charged with colonial history. Inside, Harris's soundscape includes readings of her stories as well as To a Dead Slave by Guyanese poet Martin Carter. The ‘dead slave’ in the poem, Harris tells us, is Quamina Gladstone celebrated in The Co-operative Republic of Guyana today for his role in the slave rebellion of 1823. Quamina was a source of inspiration during the decolonial independence movement. From the back wall of the gallery a wax-print fabric cascades downward in a parabolic curve. Several flat memory foam cushions covered with a second wax-print pattern are arranged on the floor. On the lefthand wall, cast brass plaques, with the names of the Guyanese women from Harris’s research, stand solid and indelible. There is a palpable sense that Susanne Kerr, Elizabeth Junor, Doll Thomas and Elizabeth Swain Bannister should not be forgotten. 

Second Site also includes a performance devised in collaboration with fellow members of Yon Afro Collective who also take on roles as performers. "We started by having conversations about our relationship to dance, movement and our bodies," says Harris. "Through those conversations really different relationships to occupying space, dance and movement came out – some people do it all the time, some only in clubs, and some are afraid to do it in clubs. I facilitated some sensory movement exercises which are about switching off everything you know and listening to your body. There’s a powerful thing that happens when you move with your eyes closed. You’re confidently vulnerable... The score is an open structure which is enacted in a way unique to each performer."

After the opening section when performers breathe deeply or lie on the cushions, they rise and begin to seek out the boundaries of the room. This part of the performance recalls Harris’s musings on being silent. How would a state manage to cast a spell of silence over an entire population? It would take away language, history and culture. It would deny education and healthcare. It would exhaust its population through precarious work. Yet as illustrated by the joyous outbreak of Nina Simone’s voice from the recording of a raucous live performance, no such suppression can last. 

Six o’clock has come and gone at the CCA. The roof blinds suddenly screech open to allow the plants in Sonic Seance: The Gathering to get some summer sun. As we pack up to leave Harris shares some final stories from her research into the Demerara rebellion which featured the hero Quamina. "Some slaves stole muskets and put all the plantation owners and overseers in the stocks," she says. "These enslaved women line up, and one by one slap the owner across the face. It’s such a small thing but it’s also massive – the fact they slap and don’t kill him."

For Harris, these are significant moments in black history and are integral punctuation in narratives of suffering. "Let’s also hear about all of the ways people survived, whether that be small survival or massive survival – it doesn’t always have to be ‘What did you do, what did you contribute, what did you achieve?’ Another small resistance I loved hearing about, by some nameless women, was in Barbados. The women who worked on the shore where the boats came in carrying new overseers are recorded to have sung a song which went ‘New Buckra come, Buckra get sick, Buckra die, Buckra die’. Buckra is the name used for a white person." Buckra comes from the word 'mbakara', which means European master and is derived from the West African languages Ibibio and Efik. Through slavery it traveled to the U.S.A. and the Caribbean, and is found in the word 'buckaroo'.

"Singing that song doesn’t change their position, or slavery," explains Harris. "But when you live in a constant state of fear, that little song you sing when this new overseer is landing has power. When I tell people they laugh their heads off! It’s important not to forget the horrific stuff but it’s more important to remember all of that strength and all of those everyday resistances, and that being black history."

The Skeleton of a Name opens in Transmission, Glasgow, on 20 Sep