Lisa-Marie Harris

issue date 31/01

Author: Meg Gedeon

We were immediately drawn to Lisa-Marie Harris' contemporary artworks and their explorations of femininity, alterity, and place. Informed by her upbringing in Trinidad & Tobago, her years in New York and her current home in London, Lisa-Marie Harris has the air of an otherworldly polymath — equal parts articulate and down-to-earth (wherever that may be in present.) Juggling motherhood, her art and her journal Au Courant, Lisa-Marie exudes a largesse of spirit that imparts itself into her work, her words and her practice. We sat down to ask her, among other things, about what home means to her.

In your own words can you tell us what you do?

I am a contemporary artist from Trinidad and Tobago, who now lives and works in London, UK. My art practice considers how the body could be understood as a thing, and I use that viewpoint to examine how it might then be commoditised, assimilated, dehumanised, and objectified. I also maintain a publishing and art practice called Au Courant Studio which publishes artists books and editions alongside Au Courant Vol, which is a digital and print magazine by "Artists on Art and Life/Style."

Can you also tell us about the path you've taken to arrive at this point?

t's been a meandering path, to be sure. Currently, I am a visiting academic at Central Saint Martins (CSM) here in London, where I earned my MA; I am also the current CSM recipient of the Helen Scott Lidgett award, and I'm undertaking a yearlong residency with ACME Studios, working towards a few different shows with really amazing artists. Still, I began this whole process very, very far afield from contemporary art as a broadcast journalist, radio presenter and multimedia producer in Trinidad & Tobago working on current affairs for many, many years. I studied art throughout my early schooling and my entire family is involved in some kind of making, creative profession or performing, but solely being an artist outright was always viewed socially in Trinidad as being impractical. I just could not see a clear way to pursue art, so I cut a path for myself through a variety of experiences working across radio, TV, advertising, editing and print. It all seemed quite random at the time but now makes perfect sense, given that I use a multitude of media processes and publishing in my practice, and I grew up in a single-parent home with a mother who was a bookmaker and printer by profession. My mum was very influential; she displayed a particular finesse and dexterity in everything she did, and she was an exceptional maker. I learned at her side. She was an extremely loving but very practical kind of woman and her attitude was that problems could always be solved through thinking and making and doing. She would insist that we come up with our own solutions, and would then encourage us to implement it somehow. I would be rambling about an idea I had and she'd actually help me make it, which was quite validating for a little child. Those early moments of encouragement continue to guide my journey today.

Your art practice is very multilayered and you create works like the visual narrative film, Flight Path (2020), which premiered at the 2021 Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. But you also create performance art, artist books, websites, works on canvas and sculptures: what does your process look like when creating these pieces?

The work usually informs the process, and I allow the particularities of the thing I am dealing with to shape how it should be made. Some stories are better told in a book format, but others need to be shaped into an experience, or an object. I deeply appreciate how art can provide space for work to exist in many different ways - there really is no one way to be an artist, or to make valid work. I'm also very interested in making artwork that can exist beyond the institutional conventions, for the same reasons. Some of my objects, especially my works-on-canvas and the themes they might invoke will be better suited to gallery interactions, but a film work like Flight Path (2020) examined the physical act of movement, and how attempts to advance oneself can sometimes be futile, based on the parameters of one's social and cultural environment. It examined the kinds of concessions involved in making societal advancements, and it depicts a pair of flight sails floating in mid-air that are never able to break free and complete their journey. The film could show well enough in a gallery, but it worked flawlessly when installed outside as a large-scale public intervention, projected on the side of a building on a main thoroughfare where the viewer could not easily escape the audio component or the visuals. A lot of what I end up doing just is sitting and waiting with the work, to better understand its nuances.

Your work often speaks about home as a construct. With this being said, are there certain rituals or practices that create a sense of ‘home’ regardless of the space, time, or location?

When people hear how many times I've moved cities and countries, they often imagine some kind of luxury world tour. What they overlook is that when you migrate by force and circumstance, particularly as a person from a tiny, post-colonial country in the Caribbean sea, you are often moving in dire circumstances and with enormous immigration complexities which leave you in a kind of stateless limbo. It is traumatic - you cannot settle anywhere and you belong nowhere. You cannot 'put down roots' as it were, and returning to your country is a complexity of another kind. Home must then become something flexible and personal - something not dependent on four walls or a nationality. For me, home is love, food, warmth and good music, and being in a safe space with my husband and our kids. It's having a massive pile of independent magazines and books to read, or having a space to make my work in peace. Or being able to commune with the farmers at markets, especially those who know about Trinidadian produce, or the ones that don't have a clue about dasheen bush, chennettes or pommecythere, but will happily tell you about how you could use rhubarb, parsnips and celeriac instead. It's having a forest or heath nearby for a proper, long walk in the woods. And it's returning to the beach! I am a Caribbean woman, through and through, and I am always ready to be at a hot, sandy beach.

Your works also speak to the role of place in your life. Is there somewhere you wish to return to?

I do occasionally reminisce about the years when I had finally decided to migrate from Trinidad and was living in Manhattan's West Village. My husband and I were broke in the New York way; we survived by eating $1.00 pizza slices from a pizzeria on University Place, and Gray's Papaya hot-dogs, even throughout their salmonella outbreak. We'd go to the free Saturday party nights at the Brooklyn Museum for entertainment - there was a splendid exhibit of The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago installed one year, and we wandered into the opening of Elisabeth Peyton's epic Live Forever exhibit at the New Museum on a lark. Every summer, we'd party under the wild installations at MoMA's PS1, and then bar crawl with other, equally impoverished friends on St. Marks. I used to work at the New York City ballet in their telemarketing suite and once, I convinced a guy who was listed as "opera singer" to buy season tickets. Afterwards, when I got his information to order the passes, we realised it was actually Luciano Parvarotti. I also had the great fortune to train at the Museum of Art and Design (MAD) alongside then-exhibitions curator, Lowery Stokes-Sims as a curatorial research intern for sometime, and she set me to work on what would become a landmark exhibit, The Global Africa Project. I met many, many good artist friends through MAD. Neither my husband nor myself could ride bikes at the time, so we'd go to Governor's Island in the spring and use the free bike hire for hours; we'd jump on the ferry at Battery Park then go to the far side of the island where nobody would see our misery, and together, we figured out how to cycle. We are both academics and spent our days in lost in research, the city, and each other as we tried to make sense of how to pursue our dreams during what turned out to be a massive recession. The city was also exceptionally bleak at that time - everything was shut or was shutting down, and the energy of the place was wild, dark, and dangerous. I often felt quite lost in that despair, and could not see how many precious and encouraging things were happening. I cannot romanticize Manhattan, or that particular era in New York. But I do return to the energy of that time whenever things seem stressful or hopeless, to remind myself to look out for the priceless and beautiful things that are always growing strong in the midst of the madness.

You also founded Au Courant Daily, which brings together art, design, branded items and print. Can you tell us how it has evolved from its inception?

It was initially a Blogspot I kept as a creative outlet whilst working as an on-air radio broadcast journalist in Trinidad and Tobago. It became more serious once I had left for New York and I could allow myself to think in earnest about 'maybe' doing art - for real. I had grown weary of programming the same, station-approved content everyday, and was particularly tired of reporting on local current affairs, which would often become extremely gory. Au Courant Daily was my escape, where I could test out all the ideas the station directors thought were impossible or impractical for Trinidad society. Since then, Au Courant Daily has recently evolved into an online performance art space, where myself and other artists will run long-term, durational performance works within the framework of a website. Otherwise, most of the essays and personal writings I once published now exists on the Au Courant Vol website, which is a monthly subscription column bringing many years of archival writing, interviews, and features from the limited-edition print issues of Au Courant. And now, there are a few pieces of Au Courant merch available since people started asking how to buy the one-off sweaters and hats I used to make for myself to wear around the studio. It's all growing nicely, and organically. The readers have pushed that - some of them I know personally, and are artists or other colleagues who feel comfortable sharing their own work on Au Courant. Many readers have even been around since the days of the old Blogspot. I largely work on Au Courant projects alone, but have been very fortunate to build a precious, collaborative community around the work, and I really cherish that.

What do you enjoy most about your career and what do you find most challenging?

I enjoy the autonomy more than anything else. I think the loneliness of an art practice can seem isolating, but I absolutely relish being left alone to my own devices and thoughts, so I can test things and find answers. The space to work alone and without interference is precious to me. I need to figure out why the thing I am making is important enough to be made in the first place. Or maybe it isn't worth being made at all, perhaps it needs to be performed or inhabited in an altogether different mode. I can get right to the core of what I am trying to grasp when I can explore it alone and without external influences. And once it is done, once I have formulated or understood what is occurring, then I can share it, collaborate, discuss and so forth. I can easily spend months in happy isolation working alone. The challenge is that life is life, and an art practice requires constantly reaching out; there is no sustained time or space to work without interference.

What are your current inspirations?

Calypso classics from the 80s and early to mid 90s, particularly songs from the calypsonians Baron, Ella Andall, Bro. Valentino and David Rudder. These days I've been listening to Baron's 1991 hit, This Melody Sweet - it reminds me of the Trinidad of my youth, and of playing Mas in Port-of-Spain at Carnival time. The song has a kind of playful melody that encapsulates the joyful energy of years gone by, but there is also a somber undertone that acknowledges the mood of the nation after the attempted Coup of 1990, which completely took away the country's innocence.

Interview with a Vampire, which I can watch over and over, just for Tom Cruise's ace portrayal of the vampire Lestat - Cruise's crazy laugh works so perfectly in that despicable character! I also love the decrepitude of vampire and witchcraft movies in general, and I've probably seen them all. Also, old Hollywood costume films and movies starring old actors like Cary Grant, for the style and flair. You do have to cherry-pick the films and suspend disbelief because those things are rife with tired stereotypes.

Watching my daughter 'make art' - she drops herself on the floor, pulls a funny face whilst holding toothpaste boxes stuck together with packing tape, and declares that she is a sculpture. Or listening to my son give his long lectures about designing intricate folds for new paper plane models. There is a cupboard in my kitchen overflowing with planes, and he obsessively hoards any bit of paper - including the important ones - to make his things, so I have to guard my documents well.

I am always inspired by my peers, and their dedication to making thoughtful and challenging art in these crazy times.

If you were to give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

To keep pursuing the dreams worth having, especially those which seem impossible to dream on a Caribbean island.

How would you describe your personal style, and has it changed much over the years?

I wear my things until they are threadbare, so I tend to look for timeless items. Things were often lean in childhood, but my family was also filled with creative intellectuals who valued impeccable making and living with a sense of elegance. My grandfather would save his money to buy custom-made leather shoes not because they were expensive or fashionable, but because they fit him perfectly and would last for a very long time. From my great-aunts to my mum, most of the women in my family were professional dressmakers who could also knit, crotchet, weave, and pattern-make. So the very first making technique I learned before painting, carving or doing anything 'artsy', was how to stitch garments by hand and to sew with an old, treadle-style Singer sewing machine. I still use many of the sewing techniques I learned when I was five in my art practice today, although my folks taught me these things so I could darn my clothes for myself - it was always about practicality. Otherwise, I just want to reach into a closet where everything complements each other and I know that whatever I pick will be comfortable and look good, because I am still quite vain! I do, however, spend time to hunt down and select items that can last. I have a pair of loafers that are due for its 4th resole, and duck boots that just won't die, even after 15 years of constant use.

Do you have a favourite quote or mantra?

"Doh study people." My mother would tell me this every morning, and I mean every morning, as she combed my hair for primary school in front of the bathroom mirror. It's a Trinidadian saying that essentially encourages you to do what makes sense and is right for your own journey, instead of what is merely popular, or what has worked for someone else. She would say that one never knows what people secretly endure, or what they have committed against themselves or others in order to maintain their public image, or to gain a particular advantage. So pay them, their judgements, and their outcomes no attention whatsoever.

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