Bodies of water — rivers, lakes, the ocean — have played a major role in the lives of African Americans. Water provided passage to the ships that brought Africans to the Americas in chains; later, water served as a means of escape from slavery. In New York, a popular route favored by those using the Underground Railroad included the upper Hudson River. It connected people to Lake Champlain, providing access to freedom in Montreal, Canada.
For artist and photographer Daesha Devón Harris, the landscape and waters of the Hudson Valley region were important. Her ancestors arrived in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., five generations ago via Virginia.
These same waters inspired Harris to create her dynamic, colorful and yet haunting folktale series, “Just Beyond the River.” On family fishing trips, Harris explains, she was always drawn to the bottom of the river. “It’s really beautiful, it’s like a whole other world,” she says. “So I made a note that I would do something with those images one day.”
One of Harris’ hobbies is collecting Victorian-era black-and-white images of unidentified African American men, women and children, sourced from trips to flea markets in New York State.
She used some of them in “Just Beyond The River,” making them transparent through a scanning and printing process, then placing and photographing the transparencies in ponds, lakes and rivers in the Hudson Valley.
Each image was then paired with an object unique to the life story she reimagined for each figure. For those, the artist drew on selected words from African American literature, such as slave narratives, oral history and poetry from the Harlem Renaissance era.
We spoke to Harris to find out more about her process and the inspiration behind select pieces in the series.