Versia Harris: once upon a dream

The imaginary worlds that Barbadian Versia Harris creates in her animated video works are inspired by childhood cartoons as much as the landscapes of home. Marsha Pearce talks to the artist about exploring the boundaries of fantasy and reality

Versia Harris. Photograph by Mark KingA stills from the video animation They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once. Courtesy Versia HarrisA stills from the video animation They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once. Courtesy Versia HarrisA stills from the video animation They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once. Courtesy Versia HarrisA stills from the video animation They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once. Courtesy Versia HarrisImage from Harris’s Merely a Chimera series. Courtesy Versia HarrisThey Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once installed at Alice Yard in Port of Spain. Photograph courtesy Alice YardLandscape from They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once. Courtesy Versia Harris

How much can our fantasies shape our reality? In Walt Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, Princess Aurora is certain she will meet the prince of her dreams, because “they say if you dream a thing more than once, it’s sure to come true.”

Barbadian artist Versia Harris has not allowed herself to dream of success even once. Never in her wildest dreams did she think she would win the award for Best New Media Film at the 2014 trinidad+tobago film festival, for instance. Yet the prize has become her truth. Out of a suite of entries that experimented with digital technologies and pushed the boundaries of how stories are told in audiovisual terms, Harris’s video animation sequence They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once was selected the winner.

“I was completely shocked,” she says. “I am grateful for the award, but I had no idea of winning.” It’s not because Harris believes dreams cannot cast a spell on our lived experiences. It is precisely the opposite. “Every time I think about the future and where I want to go, I am scared. I am afraid to imagine myself as a successful artist. I don’t want to jinx it,” says the twenty-three-year-old — who, since graduating from Barbados Community College in 2012 with a BFA degree in studio art and the Leslie’s Legacy Foundation Award for the most promising art student, has quickly garnered a palpable presence in a Caribbean landscape of visual art.

Harris has long been interested in the intersection of fantasy and reality, in the junction between dream and actuality. As a child, her favourite TV character was the Little Mermaid. “I remember going to the beach and trying to swim like a mermaid,” she says. “I was five years old. Looking back on it, I was taking fantasy . . . and trying to make it reality.” Harris would soon begin exploring this concern in art — an avenue not far removed from the creative foundation established by her family. Her mother was a dancer, and her father loved the performing arts, travelling as an actor with theatre production companies in the Caribbean. Her cousins were also an influential force. “I grew up seeing my cousins draw. They did it really well, and they played a huge role in me wanting to draw and do art. Seeing their drawings, I wanted to draw too,” she explains.

Harris’s fascination with on-screen moving pictures took her in the direction of animation. Amid her carefully constructed drawings presented in rapid succession to give the human eye the impression of motion, Harris is looking for something — in that illusion, she searches for a true self. She talks about coming to this realisation: “As a teenager, I looked in the mirror and felt the person looking back wasn’t me. My body wasn’t matching how I saw myself inside. I would look for myself in other people. I would try to transform into another character. Animation made me aware that I was doing this in my life.”

 

Harris’s animated pieces address issues of desire, fantasy, and loss through her creation of particular characters. They Say You Can Dream a Thing More Than Once features her Swan Girl character, a curious long-necked figure who is seen interacting with TV http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Bacchae in an effort to reconcile dominant media definitions of self with an awkward body that has an unconventional brand of presence and attractiveness. In the video, Swan Girl chases after Disney princess dresses that float and dance mockingly, ever out of her reach. Another of Harris’s characters is a tiny mimic man, who processes everything around him and morphs into what he sees.

A key aspect of these works is the striking realm Harris builds. Herself a product of the “New World,” a hemispheric term for this part of the globe in which the Caribbean islands are located — where people have had to dream up new societies — Harris fashions her own novel worlds: virtual spaces in which to play out what it means to exist, and to test the limits of tangible geographies and open their borders to possibilities. “There are Caribbean references in the landscapes I make. A big part of imagination is what you can pull from reality, but I am not creating a specific place,” she says. “The world in my videos is imagined, but it gives a reality for the characters — something to ground them.”

In real life, Harris has found her own ground in a number of artist’s residencies, which have offered her opportunities to develop her practice. In February 2013, Harris was the recipient of a “My Time” Local Residency at the Fresh Milk art centre in Barbados. The following month, she participated in a Vermont Studio Centre Residency in the United States. Later that year, she took part in an exchange programme at the Instituto Buena Bista Curaçao Centre for Contemporary Art (IBB). And in November 2013, Harris was artist in residence at Alice Yard in Trinidad. Each location, she says, has put her in a different imaginative space that has impacted her creative outputs. “A different landscape always triggers something in my mind.”

These various experiences precipitated an evolution of her work into large-scale video installations. In Curaçao, for example, she displayed five-foot-wide pieces in the IBB courtyard. She used two projectors facing each other, with a fabric screen between them. Each projector displayed a different video, but audiences saw them as one combined picture, with the images flickering on both sides of the same screen surface.

In Trinidad, she increased the scale of her work. With the aid of Alice Yard’s administrators, their network of artists, and the North Eleven team of video projection specialists, Harris presented her moving images on multiple screens at approximately ten feet wide, and also projected onto adjacent buildings — creating an immersive environment where audiences found themselves in a convergence of Harris’s make-believe and the reality of a Caribbean urban setting. Her characters and scenes were never so big.

Harris’s art literally grew at Alice Yard, but she also learned something else during that residency. “After Alice Yard, one thing struck me. The community of artists there, and at the other residencies, too, is trying to do something for us with little support. I realised I was always on the receiving end at these places, and wanted to give back — to somehow be supportive of other artists.” So since her time in Trinidad, Harris has become a volunteer at art institutions in Barbados. She helps with administrative tasks at Fresh Milk, and writes reviews of books made available at the centre’s Colleen Lewis Reading Room. She also lends a hand at the Punch Creative Arena, an initiative that runs a multi-purpose space for the arts at Barbados Community College. “When they have a show, I paint the walls — I help set up.”

While giving back, she still makes time for advancing her art. In 2014, she was selected to participate in the IV Moscow International Biennale for Young Art. The event’s theme, “A Time for Dreams,” was appropriate. “It was an amazing experience to be in Russia,” she says. “It is one thing to hear about a place, and another thing to go there. The place was a word in my head, but when I got there I felt like I wasn’t as apart from the rest of the world as I thought.” While in Moscow, Harris also noticed a relationship between the art created by practitioners in the Caribbean region and works made elsewhere: “I saw that work coming out of the Caribbean could fit in with work produced in other parts of the world. A lot of younger artists are moving away from what people might think is typically Caribbean-looking art. Young artists are not dealing with issues of Caribbeanness and colonialism. I feel like we are searching for connections.”

For Harris, that search remains one for connection with what she calls an “untouched part” of herself — a part with which she is trying to communicate. “I am still looking in the mirror and not seeing myself,” she admits. Lately, her explorations are taking her in the direction of drawing shop windows. “I have been dealing with the TV, which is a carrier of fantasies. Display windows work in that same way to present a fantasy. What is in the display window is not exactly what you get in the store. A fantasy is presented that the consumer tries to make into a reality,” she says.

As both art-maker and supporter, Versia Harris is beginning to make a splash in the art world — a reality we might attribute to the fact that this artist is still fantasising about being part fish. “I am not sure I’ve realised yet that I am not a mermaid.”