Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 3, 2021
Hank Willis Thomas Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal . . . Exh. cat. Contributions by Julia Dolan, Sara Krajewski, Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, and Kellie Jones. New York and Portland, OR: Aperture Foundation in association with Portland Art Museum, 2018. 256 pp.; 300 ills. Cloth $65.00 (9781597114486)
Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR, October 12, 2019–January 12, 2020; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR, February 8–July 13, 2020; Cincinnati Art Museum, September 4–November 8, 2020

The contributors to the exhibition catalog Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal . . . write with depth and acuity about the artist’s complex body of work, which spans three decades. By asking questions about the role of the arts in democratizing visuality and creating a more civically engaged public, the essays by Julia Dolan, Sara Krajewski, and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, as well as an interview between Thomas and the art historian Kellie Jones, combine to convey a deeply reflective portrait of the artist and offer new insights into the breadth of his artistic growth. The catalog and the exhibition of the same name ask us to consider the history of violence, discrimination, and persecution that minorities have faced and continue to face and our role in the fight against all structures of oppression.

In “The Conceptual Work of Hank Willis Thomas,” Lewis invokes W. E. B. DuBois to highlight a strategic element in Thomas’s conceptual practice: propaganda (27). According to Lewis, Thomas uses propaganda to unpack African American identity formation in the context of American consumerism’s ominous historical arc, stretching from slavery to the present day. Lewis thus situates Thomas’s practice within an evolving Black artistic tradition and alongside a diverse array of political activists. It is not unfounded, then, that Lewis places Thomas in the company of Black artists—from Meta Vaux Warrick Fuller (nineteenth century) to Jacob Lawrence (twentieth century)—who appropriated Western visual strategies to challenge the socioeconomic and political status of Black people (27). Like these artists, Thomas imagines new ways of visualizing Black life in the United States and forges new roles for the African American artist specifically through the strategy of citation.

Lewis identifies an organizational through line in Thomas’s artwork, specifically the artist’s deployment of a cinematic editing process and logic: “the investigative line (the cut), the line squared (the frame), and the jump cuts back and forth through time” (28). As evidence, Lewis points to Thomas’s iconic work I AM. Amen (2009). The installation consists of twenty black-framed Liquitex-on-canvas paintings, each bearing a single phrase: past rhetorical declarations such as Sojourner Truth’s “AIN’T I A WOMAN” from 1851; “I AM A MAN,” cited from placards used in the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike march in Memphis; and contemporary phrases such as “YOU THE MAN,” made iconic by a memorable exchange between characters Buggin’ Out and Mookie in Spike Lee’s 1989 film, Do the Right Thing. Seemingly arranged in quasi-sequential order, the narrative that Thomas crafts can be read through frames that appear apt for both text and film. Lewis’s spatiotemporal interpretation convincingly suggests that this work points to the pivotal role language and time have played in Thomas’s efforts to deconstruct mainstream white definitions and perceptions of Black identity and to assert personhood.  

In her conversation with Thomas, Jones masterfully weaves through the artist’s life and career, revealing his artistic influences, his dexterity with photo, film, and sculpture, and his quest for truth and justice. She argues that the birth of Thomas’s conceptual and critical thinking can be traced back to his early exposure to the practice of his mother, the artist/scholar Deborah Willis, and other photographers like James Van Der Zee and Gordon Parks. Thomas further divulges that he began to understand the blurriness between documentary, commercial, and fine art photographic traditions after discovering artists like Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson, Suzanne Lacy, Todd Hido, and Morgan and Marvin Smith.  

Combining autobiography with a critical awareness of how visual culture acts upon the Black body in the United States, Thomas candidly points to a traumatic event that informed his sense of self and served as an impulse behind his investigation(s) of race, representation, and American consumerism. In February 2000 his cousin Songha Willis was murdered during a robbery outside a Philadelphia nightclub for a gold chain worn by one of his friends. Out of the depths of his grief, Thomas began to understand how ubiquitous advertising had become, and he connected it to the lives lost for commercial goods such as gold chains, backpacks, and sneakers. In a 2015 interview with the Brooklyn Rail, Thomas describes logos as “hieroglyphs,” highlighting the critical role context plays in their reception. His assertions were recently proven correct as brands responded to the 2020 police killing of George Floyd by pairing their logos not with products but with social justice messaging. For example, Nike posted a text video on its social media accounts featuring its logo, a somber piano score, and the phrase “For once, don’t do it.”

Jones also teases out just how expansive Thomas’s practice has become. The series Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915–2015 (2015), for instance, concerns itself with the patriarchal and misogynistic roots of American marketing. The series recontextualizes advertisements featuring white women, drawing attention to how corporations market their products to this group and, in doing so, market white women as products. Question Bridge: Black Males (2012), an innovative five-channel video installation created by Thomas in collaboration with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair, includes interviews with 150 Black men living in twelve American cities and towns. The work uses recorded testimonials to probe Black male identity across a geographic, economic, political, and generational spectrum. Inspired by a tiny seventeenth-century sculpture of a Moor riding a snail that Thomas discovered in the Wadsworth Atheneum’s collection, History of the Conquest (2017), a one-ton bronze sculpture of a young Black boy riding a giant snail and wielding a bow and arrow, attests to the artist’s acuity in sculpture. This project highlights Thomas’s interest in past representations of Black people and the reception of those representations when they are acted upon using today’s technological resources, such as 3D scanning.

Dolan deals with the inherently subjective nature of Thomas’s photographic practice and how the artist’s participatory interventions heighten audience reception, thereby altering their relationship with the work. She draws out how Thomas reanimates the archive by transporting subjects from iconic historical photographs into his contemporary moment’s political discourses. For example, Dolan highlights Raise Up (2014) from the Punctum sculpture series, in which the artist selects a photographic detail and re-presents it as sculpture. In this work, Thomas disembodies the heads and raised arms of thirteen Black men from a 1960s, two-dimensional image by Ernest Cole and transforms them into a three-dimensional sculpture. Dolan also highlights Freedom for Soweto (2018) from Thomas’s Retroreflective series: the artist used a photograph taken by Noel Watson in 1976 and focuses on a boy with his arms raised (bent at the elbow) and hands showing peace signs. While both source images documented Black life under apartheid in South Africa, Thomas transforms them into profound representations of Black struggle and freedom, mirroring the police violence and brutality prevalent in contemporary American society.

Dolan also points out Thomas’s prescriptive interventions, which include requiring physical “positioning and repositioning” of the viewer, “exposing the work to spectral light,” and “photographing the object with flash” (178). Freedom for Soweto is screenprinted on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond using a carefully composed combination of normal ink and special reflective ink typically used for signs and hazard warnings. When the images are unlit, viewers see an isolated young man. When they are illuminated, the rest of the scene is revealed: men in riot gear surround the figure as an aggressive dog lunges toward him. Through these interventions, Dolan argues, Thomas enhances the notion of active viewership, which pushes Roland Barthes’s notion of the punctum beyond the flat surface.

Krajewski’s essay focuses on Thomas’s engagement with “truth” across cultures, an especially noble undertaking in this age of alternative facts and fake news. A series of works created to emphasize the influential power of language as a tool for social justice—The Truth Is I Am You (2008), In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth) (2011), and The Truth Is I See You (2015)—lie at the heart of her analysis. Thomas’s truth-based series creates sites of introspection, contemplation, and conversation and invites viewers to take pause and consider who we are and what we value. Krajewski spends much time addressing the participatory aspect of Thomas’s work; a discussion of relational aesthetics might have strengthened this adept description. Nevertheless, Krajewski rightly notes that Thomas’s interactive installations are designed to “construct situations of intentional engagement,” in turn facilitating community among artists and viewers (247). 

Krajewski’s analysis of Thomas’s collaborative work with the For Freedoms project beautifully supplements Jones’s interview and further attests to how his practice is “evolving toward direct action” (243). Through For Freedoms—the first artist-run super PAC (political action committee) that investigates how art and artists can move the US public toward “greater civic engagement, open discourse, and direct action”—Thomas has partnered with art organizations worldwide to host town hall meetings, erect billboards, launch voter registration drives, and mount exhibitions (243). These initiatives not only aim to redefine citizenship as a more participatory condition but also fully encapsulate Thomas’s aspirations of creating a world where “we can see, hear, and respect each other for the human beings we are” (247).

The contributors to All Things Being Equal . . . use Thomas’s work to provide a critical framework for considering ideas about Black visuality, social justice, and the democratization of the archive. Collectively, the essays and artist interview provide a well-rounded appraisal of Thomas’s artistic, political, and philosophical metamorphoses, exemplifying his increasing commitment to transforming his practice into one that fosters civic engagement and global change.

Phillip A. Townsend
PhD Candidate, Department of Art + Art History, The University of Texas at Austin