Creating Art from the Archives: “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer”

Thomas Allen Harris looks back at 28 years of HIV/AIDS activism in newly released short film, “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer.”

On World AIDS Day 2017, Visual AIDS opened its 28th iteration of Day With(out) Art, an annual program that seeks to increase awareness of the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis. This year’s program, titled ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS, was curated by Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett and features challenging, innovative work from 8 black artists whose lives are deeply impacted by the ongoing epidemic. ALTERNATE ENDINGS, RADICAL BEGINNINGS is being screened in over 100 venues worldwide.

Still from “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer” (2017)

Thomas Allen Harris’ new short film, “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer”, opens the program. The piece looks at a series of public television programs Harris produced on HIV/AIDS from 1989-1991, which brought folks who were previously ignored by mainstream media to the core of public discussion, and an essay he’d written around that time, published in Black Popular Culture (edited by Gina Dent).

Still of Vilma Santiago from “About Face: The Evolution of a Black Producer”

Thomas, raised by activists in the Bronx and East Africa, felt an urgency to produce these programs as “friends and colleagues were dying without representation”. Though pushback from the channel’s executives and the constraints of corporate media ultimately led the artist to suspend work in public television, Thomas returns to the work in the context of the contemporary crisis with a continuing sense of urgency: Of those in the US diagnosed with HIV today, 44% are black. The need for representation remains as critical as ever.

At the program’s marquee screening Monday, December 4th at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Thomas Allen Harris participated in a post-screening talkback with artists Cheryl Dunye and Ellen Spiro and program curators Erin Christovale and Vivian Crockett. The talkback focused on the importance of intergenerational dialogue in the context of resistance and the power of the archive.

“I didn’t remember what was in all those archives. [This project] opened up space for me to look in the archive… to actually go into the archive and do a kind of remix of it,” Thomas Allen Harris shared with the Schomburg audience, “It’s like making a psychic, spiritual date with yourself.”

Cheryl Dunye, fellow Academy member and longtime colleague of Thomas, said, “Activism is about collaboration. One person can’t fight a battle alone.”

“It’s about people in physical spaces, and highlighting that,” Thomas added. “Members of my ancestral church are here, Bethel AME. They helped get the word out. 20 years ago, I don’t know if Bethel AME church would be here at this kind of screening. So I just think we’ve changed in many different ways. Things have opened up.”

Thomas returns to the realm of public television with his latest project, Family Pictures USA, which he produces and hosts. The show explores neighborhoods & cities through the lens of the family photo album, enlarging a collective understanding of history and identity. Thomas connects participants to an interactive audience and to each other, using their archives as a starting point. Family Pictures USA is currently running a crowd-funding campaign to bring the pilot series, featuring the city of Detroit, to national broadcast in 2018.

 

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