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."