Malcolm Harrison: Now You Know the Real Me

Areez Katki reviews the exhibition at Season, 7–28 January 2023.

“Yes I’m alive!”

Still haven’t shaken it off completely have we, that fear? I still remember every walk home with that distinct warmth in my bowel—when there’s a feverish quality, a warm-bloodedness, an itch, a scab that just won’t go away—before the question is asked in bed: do I have it?

It might seem obvious why I was invited to write this—and not just because I was born the year that Malcolm Harrison began fabricating his ‘Mortal Angels’ (1989–90), from which eleven out of seventeen panels were exhibited at Season as part of Now You Know the Real Me in January 2023. And apart from the ways in which Harrison and I both fell to the softer seductions of material culture, there is a salient bond between men who’ve lived with that fear: one so recognisable when witnessed in each other’s eyes.

What’s compelling when I look into Harrison’s—albeit only through his work—is a trans-generational glimpse into how one must’ve lived beside it, worked beside it, rather than simply dispelling it into the psychological abyss of every gay man’s nightmare. Guess what I’m trying to say is that I sense courage—it’s there, somewhere—beyond the complex distances of culture, politics and time that hold us apart.

I wasn’t born into a community that shied sophisticatedly away from the many faces of trauma. The act of distilling one’s emotional experiences into a force of productivity is still a challenge; there were no social cues or mores that I was taught upon arrival in Aotearoa, aged eleven, with which to cope alongside the anxieties and fears that invade a queer migrant’s budding imagination. So, what does one do with trauma? “Conquer it” would be the obvious, perhaps most optimistic, answer. But it would also be the more patriarchal solution to a problem that I’m still only locating. According to bell hooks, the desire for conquest or domination of anything, including one’s own emotions, is rooted in a fear of having to look squarely at it.[01]

And that direct gaze is what one might apply to works such as Harrison’s The Letter (1990), which I read as an assertion—a proclamation!—of living. The antithesis of an AIDS quilt, this work builds upon the sensualities of bursting summer fruit in frenetic 1980s shocks of colour; a bacchanalian composition centred around some kind of amorphous jelly-like mound that could melt or collapse at any moment. After conversations with gallerist and curator Francis McWhannell, I learned that Harrison composed this work after an epistolary exchange with his friend, jeweller Kim Brice, whom we suspect the artist might’ve had a rather strong crush on: it was delivered, months later, to Brice’s doorstep. For homosexual men to survive through anything in the 1980s—whether it be a deadly virus, or rejection, or a perilous year abroad—must’ve required courage, acceptance and a kind of mutuality that is palpable in The Letter, where there is no visible conquest of fear. Not with one’s emotions, not with the generally frowned-upon erotics of white male embodiment—rather, we see one’s agency to choose and exercise fear’s opposite: joy.

Harrison’s heuristic approach, I’m slowly trying to understand, wasn’t about conquest or the condemnation of counter forces. The varied approaches to his compositional material, his uses of colour, texture and found poetry, aren’t lost on me either. When I visited Season that hot summer day, I was immediately drawn to The Letter—but then I scanned rightward: to his messily composed Sonnet (Hear the silence tolling through the nightwatch hour) (1989). I thought that it might offer pedagogical opportunities for homosexuals to gently converse as we embark on our own perilous journeys; a bright pink triangle tears across a dull midnight ground. The work might be a historical account of queer identity, charting the phenomenology of ancestral impulses. I then smile: there’s this confused pleasure I often feel in the company of Harrison’s work. Is it the sloppily composed sonnet? However chaotic, it attests to a very human drive, of surviving through the night and through the years.

This leads to me thinking about an obsession with the quotidian visible in Harrison’s practice. It appears softened and distilled into moments of finer examination as I crane my neck to view Rainbird I (1988), which is composed of tapa, cotton and strips of leather. The semi-circular form evokes, as McWhannell pointed out in the exhibition catalogue, the Hawaiian ‘ahu ‘ula. My eyes close for a brief moment, to breathe, pause and meditate on the affectual histories of traded textiles: how they globally shaped the facets of a colonised world. Yes, there are cultural discrepancies between myself and Harrison and, yes, I do also find his series of racialised dark-blue denim dolls titled ‘The Family’ (1983–87) deeply questionable.[02] There also lies the matter of critiquing his generation’s entitlement to cultural material that stems from these colonial impulses to acquire and consume the Other. Damn. I really don’t want to dislike him, yet I can’t help but think about what might’ve fed this impulse. The mind then reels; with spectacularised, marginalised or tokenised positions that brown skin still holds across the hellscape of western media. These contribute to systemic prejudices still held in the homosexual world—they are still rooted in phallocentric, patriarchal and eurocentric models of masculine identity.

But Harrison wasn’t privy to these conversations, was he? His struggles were limited to the framework of his time, his own embodiment. And they were punctuated distinctly by a tragic global health crisis that I can only faintly remember or have read about. Unlike Harrison, I recently found the privilege of going to bed with this magic blue pill; it allows me to awake each day with gratitude for having made it safely through the night.[03]

[01] bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions (New York: William Morrow, 2000), 192.
[02] ‘The Family’ (1983–87) comprises thirty-five individually handmade dolls by Malcolm Harrison. Collection of The Dowse Art Museum, Te Awa Kairangi ki Tai, Te Whanganui-a-Tara.
[03] For more information about access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) in Aotearoa New Zealand, please visit learn/staying-safe/prep/

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