L. Kasimu Harris is a storyteller who uses writing, photography and video to push the narrative of cultural identity. He is a New Orleans native and has been in more than twenty group exhibitions across America, two abroad and three solo photography exhibitions. In 2015, he was in both The Rising and Louisiana Contemporary at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and garnered coverage in The New York Times, NPR and other publications.
In 2016 L. Kasimu held his most recent show, L. Kasimu which was curated by Kamau Ware at The Warehouse Gallery in New York and was also a part of The Dandy Lion Project, which will be published as a book by Aperture next year. Harris’ work fluctuates between photojournalism, documenting culture and constructed realities, all in an effort to tell stories of underrepresented communities in New Orleans and beyond.
Yasmine Akim spoke to the multidisciplinary artist to discuss his inspirations; future plans as well as activism within education and creativity.
What’s your favourite hang out in London & Worldwide?
My time in London wasn’t long enough; I rarely went to the same place twice. I enjoyed walking along the River Thames and the view from the Rumpus Room in the Mondrian London at Sea Containers was unforgettable. And I like how much London and Brighton embraces photography. I learned a lot at the Tate Modern, things that I know will shape my work.
In the states, I dig both the Kimball House and Empire State South, for food and drinks in Atlanta, Georgia. And I’ve seen some great exhibits at the High Museum of Art, also in Atlanta. In New Orleans, I’m into Willie Mae’s Scotch House and I go to The Ogden Museum of Southern Art a lot.
Where are you and what are you doing today?
Since London, I’ve travelled to New York and Miami, where I gave a talk at the American Folklore Society Conference. I’m back in New Orleans, my hometown, and working on several projects. For the photography, I’m doing work for the Mississippi Arts’ Commission, where I’m documenting and doing oral histories about customary traditions and folk art for the state’s bicentennial next year. I’m covering the gulf coast region of the state. Writing wise, I wrote a story about Ya-Ka-Mein, a dish served in New Orleans that was just published in the book, “Best Food Writing 2016.” And I look forward to telling more stories and getting some of my creative nonfiction published soon.
What is your earliest memory of photography?
My Dad studied horticulture in the Far East
in the late 1970s and I recall him having friends over to view slides he took while traveling when I was younger than seven and I’ve also seen photos of me around three with his Canon AE-1 in my hands.
What has your recent project ‘War on the Benighted’ taught you?
When I showed my series War on the Benighted at The Warehouse Gallery in New York – Kamau Ware, a curator and also a photographer wanted to make it into three parts, first it was the online debut of A Blackness Continuum, a week leading up to the opening reception. The next day in Soho (Manhattan), we had a Street Style Residency. Finally, Ware and I did a Q & A that was well attended – we had an incredibly engaged audience who asked a lot of questions and gave me feedback, which provided me with even more confidence, as I realized that my project was necessary work and that there was a place for it.
Most of all, it taught me that whatever your wildest dreams are creatively – just try it. It taught me to continue to trust my ideas, concepts and visions that may be unlike work or skill sets that I currently have. I like this quote by a Jazz musician, Artie Shaw on Glenn Miller’s band: “But the biggest problem [was that] his band never made a mistake. And if you never make a mistake, you’re not trying, you’re not playing at the edge of your ability. You’re playing safely within limits…and it sounds after awhile, extremely boring.”
What are your plans for the future?
I want to expand ‘War on the Benighted’ and ‘A Blackness Continuum’.
I came up with the story of ‘War on the Benighted’ from a single image I imagined and then by writing an outline based on it. Currently, the project starts at a point where the children are frustrated and turned away by education already, so it starts in the middle; I want to complete the beginning and the end. I shot the project over a year ago, so the students have matured and the continuity will be off, if I tried to add to the beginning as it is. So, I would like to incorporate their growth into an expanded narrative.
With ‘A Blackness Continuum,’ – I only embodied men because it was a performance piece and I didn’t want to portray a woman–fearing that it could be a distraction. In London, after seeing several exhibitions at the Tate and while out listening music, a vision came to me of the proper way to incorporate women, who were victims of police brutality into the narrative.
The last time I taught was in 2015, where I worked with students at various elementary schools through the KidsMart program. That year, I used ‘Let’s Walk The Block’ by Romare Bearden, a large collage as the foundation for our classes. He used a block of Brownstones in Harlem to communicate life in the black community, from the sanctified to the secular. He also had, cut aways, “look-ins,” inside the interiors of these homes and buildings that gave viewers a deeper look into black life. And while in London, it came to me that I could use cut aways from the narrative in ‘War on the Benighted, that will show other ills in the education for people of colour.
What was the last thing that really made you stop and stare?
An exhibition that I saw here at Somerset House The Eye Of Modern Mali by Malick Sidibé. This exhibition made me think about images from ‘War on the Benighted’ and how I could show homage to his practice. Initially his party photos intrigued me and I saw the value in his desire to document everyday life, as I am all about telling our stories.
Within daily conversations – Every opportunity I get to talk to people I always emphasize – that no matter how mundane or ordinary the photograph may seem, it will become much more notable, worthy and valuable as time progresses when you reflect on it. This is for a variety of reasons, one just being self perseverance, documenting your family, documenting the city around you and the world that you live in, because when time moves on everything changes. I saw a different side to his work that I hadn’t seen before, within how advanced his composition was. And mostly – I appreciate the endurance of someone who tells the long story – that was the last thing that made me stare.