Hank Willis Thomas wants America to wake up

A woman walking past a statue of a comb

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

On 3 October, thousands marched through Manhattan, slicing the island all the way from Harlem through Downtown, in colourful capes, make-up, and accessories. It was a beautiful fall day, an afternoon of joy and pride, manifested in colours, music, and one united slogan. They were the ‘Wide Awakes’, a vibrant network of artists, musicians, social workers, community organisers, educators, and healthcare operators. Stilt walkers on towering poles, breakdancers and chorus singers all took to Manhattan’s wide streets to fight injustice and call for action before the presidential election. 

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.’
The art world has always established its own vanguards, but Thomas, in recent years, has been a particular mastery of social activism. This has been embodied through art in all forms, from billboards on highways to projections over government buildings. He has been crafting ways of social engagement and community action against structural inequalities, as well as the increasing acts of racially charged police brutality. If art-making is foremost a gesture, Thomas’ has been defined by activism, a dedication prompted by the nation’s precarious profile of social justice. ‘Race, colonialism, capitalism and industrialisation are finite games, designed to create boxes for limitation and scarcity,’ he says. ‘The infinite game is about abundance.’ Hope will lie in the core of his practice, and he believes in the power of change through alliance.  

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. 

'The idea in the USA of building a perfect union suggests both its failure, desire and necessity always to improve it'

Thomas’ investment in social change goes beyond museum walls. For over a decade, he has been playfully revealing how visual languages of popular culture, advertising and media shape, chronicle and institutionalise racial bias. He handles visual, local, historical and institutionally rooted aesthetics through fibreglass, bronze, steel sculptures or photographs, which manipulate society’s fixed notions on class and power. 

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.
A black and white American flag
A portrait of a man standing topless in trousers
With his sculptures, the artist repositions the familiar into the uncanny and provides his audience with the tools to become voluntary thinkers and activists, capable of achieving their own political and social envisioning for a just new world. His monumental travelling sculpture, ‘All Power To All People’, is presented by Kindred Arts and marks the journey of a 25-foot steel ploy combining a black Afro comb with the Black Power fist salute across various public locations in the US, as divided states await the presidential election in November. 

‘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.
A black shiny fist statue
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