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Carla Jay Harris: Visual Anthropologist

Carla Jay Harris works diligently, contemplating her final body in her studio at the UCLA Graduate Studios in Culver City, CA.  At first glance the back wall tricks the eye into seeing a repetitive pattern of wallpaper, but upon closer inspection the design and images are intentionally meaningful.  

Harris works off of her own history, both genetic and racial.  There is a message that she wants the viewer to hear, but it's a message they realize through their own experience.  However, with the events going on in the United States regarding police violence and racial inequality one can't help but tie the two together.  

Either way when the viewer walks into Harris' Thesis show on April 30th they will choose to interpret what they will from the years of work she has put into it all.  The defining revelation will be if the viewer remembers the day after and the day after that about the lessons they might have interpreted through her work?  History is only repeated when everyone forgets about it, and Harris has chosen not only to remember but to manifest something so others do not forget as well.

To see Carla Jay Harris' work in person visit her Thesis show at 240 Charles E. Young Drive at UCLA's campus on April 30th from 5pm-8pm.  And visit her site to see more of her work at

Carla Jay Harris, a graduate student at UCLA, stands in front of her wall paper created through reapropriated imagery and self portraiture.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Describe the reasoning behind the wallpaper and the need for mirrors.

I started this project as a documentary – a photographic documentation of my connection to my family history. Over the course of the project, the photographs started to feel limited. I began experimenting with installation and sculptural work to extend them. I feel that the wallpaper installation more effectively communicates my lived experience. I also feel that documentary photography presents the photographer as objective – that position does not feel appropriate to so personal a work.

Harris lays out imagery from her project 'Dirt, Dust, Sand Concrete' where she documented the changing economic realities of the American worker through examining her relationship to her familial heritage.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Why do you juxtapose the appropriated imagery and familial imagery on the wallpaper?  Do you feel that appropriated imagery speaks louder than if you had illustrated the same message in the studio?

I feel that isolating the found images or the familial images and presenting them separately would be a false or oversimplified representation of my reality. Mixing the two together, expresses the gestalt nature of contemporary African American existence.

An image from Harris' project 'Dirt, Dust, Sand Concrete'.  Photo courtesy of the artist

You mentioned you grew up in a low crime area of Northern Virginia but with recent events in Ferguson and New York how has the racial tension developing in the news affected this project and you personally?

 I think that Americans (myself included) have a tendency to gloss over the uglier aspects of our culture and history. Cultural activism has largely given way to apathy and commodity culture. People should not have to die in order to generate passionate conversations about race.  This idea is in part what inspired me to complete this wallpaper. Wallpaper and the decorative arts have historically been relegated to the background. Incidents like what occurred in Ferguson, racism and stereotype are always there whether we choose to focus on or see them.

Family plays a big part of Harris' work so it is only natural for her to have a portrait of her grandfather hanging on her studio wall.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Upon closer examination of the wallpaper design there are Cotton Blossoms and Tobacco leaves. Did you design this and how does it connect to you and your work?  And just as they are intertwined on the design is this a metaphor for both Identity and Heritage interconnected throughout your work?

I worked with an illustrator to execute the wallpaper; however, I designed and conceptualized on my own. Cotton/tobacco are plants that my family worked under the plantation system and later grew on their own farms.  They speak to my family history as well as African-American and American history. I do see them as an extension of the themes of heritage and identity woven throughout the project.

Harris works through a mock up of her Thesis project in her studio at the UCLA graduate studios in Culver City, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

What was the evolutionary process of the wallpaper?  How did it turn into the final piece that is in your thesis show?

I like the idea of using wallpaper because it typically functions as a background. The wallpaper began as an experiment. However, as I have worked through it, the piece has come to embody the essence of all the work I've done while here at UCLA. While here, I have really concentrated on exploring my cultural and familial background. The wallpaper includes multiple elements from both.

Silhouettes as potential mirror objects hang on the wall in Harris' studio.  The placement of inspiration for potential ideas is key to any artist's studio especially in graduate school.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Do you feel the inclusion of mirrors is a way of transporting the viewer as well as you to the times you recall about Virginia?  Almost like Alice in Wonderland? Do the mirrors also call for a self-reflective process amongst the viewer?  Do you have any specific intentions with the mirrors and your audience?

With the mirrors I want to extend the project beyond my own personal experiences to transport the viewer into my experience. When viewers approach the work, they will see their reflection on the wall - literally seeing themselves in the wallpaper.  In this way, I call for a self-reflective process with the viewer.  

Harris works on a mock up of her images and lays them out shifting them around like a deck of cards to see how best they speak visually.  Photo © Aimee Santos

Your images tell a narrative in their placement.  What narrative do you find them saying either with each other or as a whole?

I have not constructed a liner narrative with the work. However, I do see the included images as in conversation with one another. I imagine them questioning the construct of identity, which has agency over identity and criticizing stereotype.

Image courtesy of the artist.

Like most projects the process can be therapeutic for the artist.  Do you feel that working on this body of work has allowed you to examine frustrations that have lived just below the skin, so to speak, that you have not address personally before?

I would not go so far as to call the project therapeutic; however, I do feel that working on this has allowed me to conceptualize my ideas about critical identity politics and their place in contemporary art.

Harris works with a miniature mock up of her Thesis show in her studio in Culver City, CA.  Photo © Aimee Santos

You describe your work as Identity and Heritage.  Can you elaborate where the societal aspects and the genealogical aspects are present?

I’d say that heritage and identity are key themes of the project. The genealogical aspects are woven through the design of the wallpaper. The societal is largely represented in the found/re-appropriated images selected.