The Collage of Theodore Harris

Bout With Patriotism -by Theodore Harris

The Hurford Humanities Center has an online exhibition of photo-montage works entitled The Truthoscopic Collage Art of Theodore Harris. The contemporary African American artist works in the tradition of John Heartfield, the German artist who in the 1930’s fused collage art with social criticism. In Harris’ 1995 collage, Bout With Patriotism, we see three unrelated images of violence intertwined in such a way as to make them inseparable. A photo of an automatic rifle is juxtaposed with an image of a Marine carrying a flag draped coffin, and a picture of Muhammad Ali throwing a punch against a backdrop of fire.

The pictures recombine to become metaphors bursting with new meaning. They also conjure up historical memories of Vietnam. In 1967 Muhammad Ali refused induction into the Armed Services on religious grounds, saying “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Vietcong.” Ali was stripped of his championship title and his boxing license, his passport was revoked, and he was threatened with a 5-year prison term. The brutality of war is certainly evoked in Harris’ collage through the image of the automatic rifle, but since it is clearly aimed at Ali it also represents war’s accomplice and co-conspirator… political repression.

Harris’ images are replete with startling depictions of African Americans trapped in a horrific modern wasteland. Even the torn edges of the collaged photos hint at the violence done to Black folks. But Harris’ art is also about defiant Blackness and the will to carry on.

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