For many in the Bay Area queer and arts communities, the news of Bay Area-based artist Amanda “Arkansassy” Harris’ untimely death came as a shock. The photographer, curator, activist and self-proclaimed “queer high femme charmer from the South” passed away on Friday, Sept. 24. She was 31.
Originally from a “one-stoplight town” in Arkansas, Harris moved to San Francisco six years ago in search of a diverse queer and artistic community to call her own. Unlike many transplants to the Bay Area, however, she was keenly sensitive to the reality that the things which drew her here — the region’s diversity, especially — were also disappearing with the influx of new populations.
“I love all those things about the Bay Area, and I also mourn that a lot of those things aren’t really staying around,” she told me in August. “I also question my place in that as a white person migrating to the Bay Area. What does that mean for people who have been here for a long time?”
Partly in answer to that question, Harris co-curated the exhibition Y’all Come Back: Stories of Queer Southern Migration at the SF LGBT Center for the 2015 National Queer Arts Festival. Featuring work by queer Southern artists, Y’all Come Back dismantled stereotypes of the South as an intolerant, heteronormative region, employing personal narratives of movement between the Bay Area and the South to draw connections between what might be seen as communities that could not be more different.
Harris’ own photo series Exodus imagined a mass queer migration to the homesteads of the South. Photographing her subjects in intimate and natural poses against lush rural backgrounds, Harris’ artist statement proposed an alternate reality — or a possible future — in which “queers make their own communities as answers to gentrification… and resist systems of dominance like white supremacy and capitalism.”
I met Harris through KQED Arts’ Women to Watch series, profiling 20 local artists, creatives and makers for the month of July, culminating in a live event at the San Francisco Jazz Center on Aug. 3, 2016. Harris’ inclusion on the Women to Watch list was a no-brainer. We admired her artistic accomplishments, her focus on underrepresented communities, and her radical, brave, DIY spirit. The one word she chose to describe herself? “Glitterdone.”
Resistance was a common theme in Harris’ work. The project for which she is perhaps most well-known, Femme Space, documents queer femmes in places where they’ve experienced marginalization, erasure or invisibility. In one photo in the series, Pizza Cupcake — in patterns, yellow pants and with purple and gold-streaked hair — powerfully stares down the camera on a BART train. In another, Denise proudly poses for Harris in skintight yoga pants, a reaction to Lululemon founder and former CEO Chip Wilson’s statement that “not every woman can wear Lululemon pants.”
Other participants in the series, recently featured as a cover story in the East Bay Express, stand in sports bars, in front of high schools and at their workplaces — all places they seek to reclaim.
Each of Harris’ Femme Space portraits includes the subject’s name, age, home base, self-identifying descriptors and a passage about their personal experience, transcribed in their own words. In the 25 portraits featured on the Femme Space website, femmes speak of their experiences of violence and the pressure to conform to “stereotypical markers of queerness,” but also talk about femme pride and of standing “powerfully, unapologetically in our bodies.”
Harris was dedicated to creating a platform for queer femme visibility. As she described her subjects onstage in August: “All genders, all backgrounds, all religions, races, abilities, as many as I can depict. Our daily lives are so full of assumption, it’s so important for us to tell our own stories and be seen in the ways we want to be seen.”
Though I only had the pleasure of spending 15 short minutes on a stage with Harris, her dedication to her art and her generous spirit were clearly evident. I and so many others mourn the loss of a talented and inspiring artist who was just beginning to make her mark.
A memorial service for Amanda Harris will be held at Sullivan’s Funeral Home in San Francisco on Wednesday, Sept. 28, from 6-8pm. Please visit the event page for details.
Additionally, a GoFundMe campaign has been established to raise money to cover the funeral and memorial costs. Any additional funds raised will go to an organization Harris supported.