Hank Willis Thomas wants America to wake up
The New York member and artist discusses his new installations and taking his investment in social change beyond gallery walls
By Osman Can Yerekeban Monday 2 November, 2020
At the crowd’s forefront was artist Hank Willis Thomas, waving a flag decorated with a large eye fully open – widely awake – in his black oilcloth cape dotted with bright colours. For Freedoms, the art and social justice organisation he cofounded with fellow artist Eric Gottesman, was an organiser of the march, where the energy in the eyes radiated over every mask. Thomas is an artist who continuously asks what emancipation in the 21st century means and looks like, and there he was spearheading a movement that adopts its name and mission with a group of 19th-century abolitionists. ‘We have to radically imagine the world that we want to live in for it to exist,’ he had told me before the march. ‘We can learn from the past, study the past, yet also not fall as a way to avoid the traps.’
During the 2018 midterm elections, For Freedoms launched its 50 States, 50 Billboards project to bring attention-calling billboards to every American state, each designed by an artist with support from 2,221 Kickstarter backers. Proving museums can go beyond exhibiting art, Thomas and his team collaborated with 220 institutions across the country to support the billboards’ mission with town hall meetings. Local communities came together with artists, scholars and activists for think-tanks on how democracy and freedom could walk hand in hand.
From marches attended by thousands to town hall meetings, Thomas’ invitation has been an open one to join the discussion, a get-together of all voices to talk and listen. ‘I don’t tend to subscribe to ideas about division. I understand race as a fabrication designed to divide and conquer,’ he says. ‘Race is in your tongue the moment you open your mouth. You’ve been classified and racialised to demoralise you or make you feel better.’ He believes in the power of speech where everyone has equal entitlement to a voice. And he’s committed to carve that space, be it making a larger-than-life speech bubble sculpture for anyone to jump inside to speak up, or projecting testimonies from inmates onto the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington or the Manhattan Detention Center.
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A currently travelling mid-career survey of his work, which kicked off last year at the Portland Museum of Art and has recently opened at the Cincinnati Art Museum, is titled All Things Being Equal…, aptly left with an ellipsis. The answer to why the title is kept open-ended is evident in the works. ‘Absolut No Return’ (2008) manipulates the image of a doorway in a slave house in Goree Island, Senegal, which led the enslaved onto ships that set sail to the New World. The doorway here resembles the recognisable shape of a bottle of Absolut Vodka. In an earlier version, titled Absolut Power (2003), the vodka bottle is the slave ship, in which innumerable dark-skinned bodies lie stacked inside. According to Thomas, the work communicates ‘how a simple idea about someone else can enable others to take horrific action in the name of commerce.’ Similar to other 90-plus works on view, this image reflects on our purpose by heralding the work of our ancestors who kept our species alive before we created industrialisation.
‘I’m interested in the iconography of everyday objects,’ is Thomas’ way of explaining how the oversized beautification tool came to hold court at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters in Washington DC for all to see. The display’s closing coincided with the anniversary march commemorating the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr uttered his 1963 ‘I Have a Dream’ speech that changed Black public consciousness forever. Therefore, its significance highlights the artist’s concern for assembling citizens and voters among American youth to make use of their democratic rite for good, similar to his mission with the Wide Awakes march. The sculpture, the march, or his overall practice, attest to and recharge Black communities’ unwavering ability to persevere, command justice, and rise to worth in areas that have worked to erase them.