Hank Willis Thomas, who was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, has emerged as one of the most prolific artists of his generation. Formally trained as a photographer, over the last 15 years, he has considered the relationship we have to images and what they say about our priorities and privileges, focusing primarily on popular, found imagery from history, sport, and fashion. He recontextualizes so effectively that his work has changed how we see images that we often passively consume. In the early “Unbranded” series, for instance, he removed the language and logos from advertisements, leaving only the images. The gesture focused attention on the outsized influence corporations have in shaping common notions of race, gender, beauty, and sexuality.
The idea is to get at “a deeper truth,” says Thomas, who recently co-founded an art political-action committee called For Freedoms. This impulse has increasingly driven him to use photographs as the basis for a burgeoning sculptural practice rooted in social engagement. For him, “It’s all one…‘Form is nothing more than an extension of content’ is what one of my professors once said.” The Truth Booth, an interactive installation that has traveled across the world, allowed participants to dialogue about questions concerning their communities; All Power to All People, a monumental Afro-pick planted outside City Hall in Philadelphia in 2017, was a poignant reminder of self-determination; and other sculptures, such as Strike, Liberty, and Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passport Must Burn!), often fabricated in fiberglass, steel, and bronze, isolated gestures and iconic moments found in photographs to draw attention to acts of destruction, power, and love.
Antwaun Sargent: I was reading through All Things Being Equal…, the monograph published in conjunction with your survey exhibition, on view at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon through January 12, 2020, and I came across the statement, “I’m much more influenced by Beyoncé than Picasso.” What do you mean by that?
Hank Willis Thomas: Even though my mother’s a curator and art historian, that wasn’t the driving force in my social identity. You and I, we grew up in what’s called the MTV Generation. We take our cues from people in popular culture. The audacity and, some might say, perfection that Beyoncé represents are qualities that I’ve always taken inspiration from.
AS: One of the strategies that you’ve employed across your career is the use of image archives—online, in libraries, in museum collections, and in magazines. How do you see your relationship to the found image? HWT: I studied photography in the analog days and was really into it. My mother’s a photographer and a photo historian. But, in so many ways, I see myself as a product of my generation. Within about three years of graduating undergrad, the whole landscape shifted to digital. I had to reconsider not only my relationship to the camera, but also to images, because there were more photographs being taken in a split second than one could make sense of. Now everyone has an equal-quality camera in their pocket, and so everyone has the capacity to become a photographer. What does this mean in relation to making images, to understanding them, and how do they impact our lives? Do we think about the ubiquity of photographs and how we can start to distill meaning from them and maybe reshape them? Most of what we know about ourselves and our culture is really shaped through commercial images, through advertising and popular culture. I have used those images as the basis for my investigation of my own identity as well as the identity of this moment.
AS: It’s All a Question of Luck (2010) is a diptych of Josephine Baker and another black woman. The juxtaposition creates a dialogue between the images in which you can see the influence of Baker on the culture and the ways in which black femininity is portrayed over time. I always think about your work as a conversation with the ways in which blackness is represented and the power or powerlessness in that representation. When you are creating works like It’s All a Question of Luck, how are you thinking about questions of representation?
HWT: I’m always wondering, are we recycling old ideas or are we actually innovating? Is it exploitative or actually revolutionary? The story of Josephine Baker is in part about someone who’d been overlooked, especially as a black woman. She had to leave the United States and exoticize herself in order to be seen as beautiful. I’m also trying to excavate, looking beneath the layers to see what is the influence of making that image a real image.
AS: Over the last several years, you’ve used images that have shaped our imaginations and possibilities of identity to create sculpture. How has your changing relationship to the camera and its images informed this shift?
HWT: We live in a moment of 3D scanning and capture, motion capture, and mechanical reproductions. I guess there’s a question I am trying to pose through the sculptures: Is it possible to have a phenomenal relationship to a historic or iconic moment? My first years making sculpture, I was looking at images from apartheid South Africa and trying to rationalize and relate to the tension in them—the sculptures were very much me trying to get myself and viewers a little bit closer to the history that we mostly see in two-dimensional black and white images from a “long time ago.” The works make you as a viewer present with whatever moment is being chosen or captured.
AS: In thinking about your shift to sculpture, the recent activity of your art political-action committee, For Freedoms, comes to mind. The 50 State Initiative, a campaign to bring artist-designed billboards to every state in America, operates in an in-between space. When you were conceptualizing that project, were you thinking sculpturally about how those billboards might consider an existing landscape?
HWT: Public advertising is very much an art form. It’s not what we might call a high art form, but I think part of what we wanted to do, which included town halls, exhibitions, and billboards, was to encourage viewers and ourselves to reconsider public space and institutional space. By making these billboards as artworks, we were trying to change the meaning of what a billboard is and how it should function.
AS: What were some of the conversations that you wanted to have with the public through those particular objects?
HWT: I think the question that I asked was literally, “What does the question look like in public space?” Meaning, most of these commercial advertising spaces are used exclusively to tell people where to go, what to buy, and who to be. Our billboards are framed as political, but most of what the artists do within their work is ask questions. We did not direct the billboards. We were just creating space for artists to do what they already do in their private studio practices but to present it in a new way. “Where Do We Go From Here?” is one of the questions on Eric Gottesman’s billboard. We are interested in rethinking the discourse that members of the public can have with an artist. With most art, these exchanges are supposed to happen in what people often see as exclusive white cubes or museums. But in this case, the same works found in museums are in public space. Hopefully they are raising the level of critical engagement around the images and the works we see in public space.
AS: The impression is that your work has shifted from being focused on subliminal language and messages carried in advertisements and popular imagery—in the “Branded” and “Unbranded” series and White Imitates Black (2009)—to being more concerned with overtly political images and messaging in Raise Up (2016) or For Freedoms.
HWT: All art is political. The question is: How do we define “political,” and how do we define “art”? I guess some people would see Branded Head and Scarred Chest (both 2003), which preceded “Unbranded,” as even more political. I think about the extraction of the political when we think about the billboards. One of the billboards that got censored by the billboard companies was Adam Pendleton’s work. They felt they couldn’t understand it on the surface, so therefore it was a threat.
AS: The Sword Swallower (2017) and Tip Off (2014) continue your fascination with sports. In these sculptures, you make the politics of sports the subject of the games, but it seems like you are drawn to the spectacle, too.
HWT: It’s the spectacle, but sports is also a highly political landscape. When you think about many of the major advancements for disenfranchised people—African American, Native American, Latino, and women—many of those happened through sports. When you think about Billie Jean King and even Michael Jordan, Jim Brown, and Muhammad Ali, it was really through their undeniable beauty, integrity, and creativity that the public was forced to engage with them as human beings.
AS: What’s interesting to me is how the work grapples with multiple notions of what is political in society and art.
HWT: It’s really about highlighting the fact that all art is political. When we talk about Picasso, why is his work important 100 years later? What’s become centered as valuable, and who originates or seemed to originate ideas that are central to our society, is political. Most of what we know about ancient Greece and ancient Egypt, and even the Renaissance era, is through the art. So what is seen as art, who is seen as a valuable artist, and what is preserved are not only important but also hyper-political.
AS: Raise Up is situated in Montgomery, Alabama, on the grounds of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, which is dedicated to those who lost their lives to lynching. I find the placement to be a significant gesture, both a political and poetic representation of a history of black struggle and freedom. When you are thinking about the installation of your sculpture in situ, what is that process like?
HWT: In that space, my sculpture is a small part of Bryan Stevenson’s vision. Even though he doesn’t see himself as an artist, his craft and his storytelling obviously create the platform and the opportunity for my work to be seen. It was his idea to place that specific sculpture within the context of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. I had originally conceptualized the sculpture to be that size, but I never could’ve imagined that a few years later there’d be someone thinking more thoughtfully about its placement than I would.
AS: You’re designing Boston’s Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. It will feature the arms of King and his wife, Coretta Scott King, embracing in bronze. It is an untraditional monument in that it does not capture the full likenesses of these Civil Rights icons.
HWT: I was inspired by a photograph that highlights the intimacy that they had with one another and the fact that they fell in love in Boston. How do we talk about, in a memorial, more than just two people? I was interested in their capacity for love and commitment and partnership. Their love shifted society. The way in which his arms are wrapped around hers was something I thought could be a poetic reminder for us to reflect on the greater history of partnership and love that is critical to freedom movements.
AS: It’s almost an abstraction of their love, of black love.
HWT: Unfortunately, we’ve become so accustomed to hearing Martin Luther King’s name that we no longer see him when we see images of him. We don’t recognize him as someone who was seen as the most dangerous man in the country at the peak of his impact. How do we connect the deeper part of his legacy, which is in part the partnership with Coretta Scott King? I didn’t want to make it about idealistic, perfect people, but about their bond. I felt that by focusing on the arms, I could focus more clearly on the bond.
AS: It reminds me of Love Over Rules, a phrase that has come to define your life in a lot of ways. It was the theme of your wedding, and you subsequently made it into a neon light installation, installed in downtown San Francisco and in the lobby of the Brooklyn Museum. Both of these works emphasize the ways in which your practice is also an investigation of language.
HWT: I think about a For Freedoms billboard I saw in September that said, “words shape reality.” What you choose to photograph, make into a sculpture, or tell in a story in many ways dictates our understanding of things. If we’re not questioning those words or reconsidering those meanings, we could also not be understanding deeper truths about what we’re hearing or seeing. How do you reconsider and reimagine our relationship to everyday objects or overused tropes? How do we start to give ourselves new meaning or understanding? That’s exactly what I try to do. I try to bring history forward and to take the things we already know or think we know and show them in a new light, to not only view them but also to broaden understanding.
AS: The newer retro-reflective vinyl works of iconic protest images in some ways do exactly that—they stand out as a way of telling the viewer to engage history. To see the work, you have to flash a light on it. The images are confrontational. You flash a light on “I tried to see a friendly face somewhere in the crowd” #1 (2017) and there’s Elizabeth Eckford integrating Little Rock Central High School in 1957. The crowd is washed out in paint, so you have to focus on the enormity of that moment in history.
HWT: The images are printed on material that only works by being illuminated through the perspective of light from a specific angle or view. I’m interested in how what we choose to shine light on affects what’s visible—that’s extremely relevant when we think about historical images. Sometimes you can make something invisible unless you shine a light on it, and then it becomes highly visible. I’m playing with the tension of hyper-visibility and invisibility. It’s about the narratives we shine a light on and the ones we don’t, and the people we shine a light on and the ones we don’t.
AS: What questions do you still have left to ask?
HWT: What are we buying into when we choose to buy products based off an image that’s telling us who and what is important? What are we relinquishing when we allow notions of ourselves and others to be shaped by corporate agendas?