Watching a 3D Printer Reinterpret African Tribal Symbols

A new work in progress by Matthew Angelo Harrison (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — With four solo and nine group shows already under his belt since 2016, it might be tempting to say that Matthew Angelo Harrison is a kind of art-making machine. But it would be more accurate to say that the somewhat inscrutable artist makes machines that make art. Throughout the month of April and into May, Harrison has been at the University of Michigan Institute for Humanities, producing new machine-extruded works as a time-based performance in Abstract Ancestry: Machine Works on Paper. Harrison is the 2018 Efroymson Emerging Artist in Residence at the gallery.

Harrison’s  machine during operational hours at the UMIH Gallery

The machine, entirely designed and built by Harrison out of 3D printing components, takes his ongoing work with abstraction in a different direction — both literally, by 3D-printing sculptural drawings that rise off the wall with each pass of the machine’s extruder tip, and in how he translates his ideas, which revolve around the cultural expressions of Africanism consumed by a tourist market. Using textile design programming, the printer reinterprets African tribal symbols, rendered in thick, textural lines of clay and acrylic paint, onto a heavily gessoed canvas (paper cannot support the weight of the material). The symbols of already dubious provenance become almost unidentifiable, building up layers of confusion and obscured meaning.

Sometimes the gessoed canvas tightens and bunches under the shrinkage of the drying clay-acrylic materials.

“This body of work is open to [imagery from] pretty much five different tribes,” said Harrison, in a talk with Hyperallergic, while his machine steadily droned in the background. “To the point where they look more mechanical.” Before becoming a full-time artist, Harrison was in the clay-modeling department at Ford automotive, and his technical acumen and comfort with machine-molding led him into these artistic explorations.

Harrison’s work is as much about experimenting with materials as about investigating the concept of “authentic” African culture, especially when adopted as part of Black-American identity. He describes his source material broadly as “exhausted cultural economies.”

“A lot of these patterns have had religious or ritual context, but what has happened over time is that they’ve become just part of commerce,” he said. “The tourist market is super-interesting to me.”

Matthew Angelo Harrison with one of his new artworks

Harrison purchases his objects online, rather than traveling to regions in Africa as a tourist, noting that the objects are sometimes being sold by colonizer countries rather than their countries of origin. “A big part of it is that I’m not trying to be a pedantic scholar — I’m just in the middle of this, for whatever reason. I grew up having tapestries or objects [around his house], and not really understanding the significance or implications of that. People in my family that have these statues, or wear medallions. But for the people from those places, selling them, it’s really about selling them, so they can survive.”

Layers of clay and acrylic build these dimensional drawings, which Harrison describes as sculptures.

One of the most conceptually challenging questions of Harrison’s work is where, exactly, the hand of the artist appears. He has been on location twice a week throughout the month, monitoring his apparatus while wearing an official-looking blue smock that seems to designate him as the man in charge of the machine. Perhaps this assertion is important, as an untutored viewer might not be able to identify the process without Harrison as a guidepost.

“If you’re in here by yourself, it’s a strange vibe,” he said. “It’s like, who’s in control here? Whose ideas are these?”

Abstract Ancestry: Machine Works on Paper continues at the University of Michigan Institute for the Humanities (Suite 1111, 202 S. Thayer Street, Ann Arbor, Mich) through May 18. The last live performance takes place on May 11. 

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