By Anita Malhotra
New York based conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas is best known for his groundbreaking and provocative works that encourage viewers to think about race, identity, history, advertising, sports and other subjects from a different, often uncomfortable, perspective.
His photographs, sculptures, installations and videos have been exhibited extensively in the U.S. and internationally. They are also in the public collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C, among others.
Thomas’ works include Priceless, a scathing commentary on commercialization; the Branded series, about the commodification of African Americans; and two Unbranded series, which strip away the logos and slogans from advertisements portraying black men and white women respectively.
Thomas has also been involved in several collaborative projects, including Question Bridge, which aims to represent and redefine black male identity in America and The Truth Booth, a portable installation collecting video testimonials of people’s opinions on the truth.
In December, Thomas won the 2017 Aimia | AGO Photography Prize, a $50,000 prize awarded by public vote based on works exhibited by four shortlisted artists at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.
Anita Malhotra spoke by phone with Thomas, who was at his New York studio, on Dec. 13, 2017.
AM: What will the Aimia Photography Prize mean for you and your career?
HWT: Well, for me it’s a big deal, partially because it’s the first prize I’ve won as an artist independently from an arts organization in over 10 years. I’ve had a lot of success with my collaborative projects but this was a chance to highlight my solo work. Seeing how the work – which is pushing the boundaries of what photography means in the 21st century – was received and accepted well by the public is a major sense of accomplishment for me.
AM: Can you describe the work you currently have on display at the AGO?
HWT: I have images from different bodies of work. I have a lenticular print that is a text-based piece. Rather than the photographer using a camera, I think of the viewers as a camera because it changes as you move around it. It says, “History is past, past is present.”
I also have a series of retro-reflective prints, which are using archival photographs screen-printed onto a material that illuminates when there’s direct light on them – so when a flash photograph is taken of them. And there are also some sculptures that were based off of photographs that I found in archives in apartheid-era South Africa.
AM: When did you first get interested in photography?
HWT: I think I’ve always been interested in photography. I was always fascinated with the family albums and photographs. But my mother is also a photographer and photo historian and I think I was following in her footsteps most of the time.
AM: Did you take photographs when you were younger?
HWT: Always. As early as I can remember there have been cameras in my life – and both sides of it.
AM: What did you take photographs of?
HWT: Pretty much anything and everything. With a point-and-shoot camera there are maybe some limitations, but license plates to sunsets, family members, shadows, many of the other things young photographers focus on – light and texture.
AM: When did you first become aware of social justice issues – especially those related to African Americans?
HWT: I would say my entire life. My mother being a photographer and photo historian and a person who worked at Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as a curator, issues of universal struggles for human rights and equal rights were all over my house. And from the earliest ages I was at least listening to conversations about these different struggles, if not actually looking at work by artists dealing with them.
AM: When did you decide that you would become an artist?
HWT: I would say I started really thinking of myself as an artist at the age of 28. By that time, I had finished grad school and I had a Masters in Photography and a Masters in Visual and Critical Studies. I really hadn’t thought about myself as being an artist as much as I thought of myself as someone who was trying to avoid being in the real world.
I was using photography as a place to explore the world and I thought of myself more as a searcher and explorer. Because I never learned to paint or draw, I thought that I couldn’t be an artist. But then I realized that I’d been doing that all along and that being an artist is not a profession but just a way of life.
AM: Why did you choose the particular studies that you did?
HWT: Africana studies and photography were my undergrad degrees. I always joke that my mother kind of chose them for me. I didn’t realize that I was following in her footsteps in much of the work. But I think there was just a great example set and I followed unwittingly.
AM: You’ve said that your adult artwork started with the murder of your cousin. Can you tell me about the work that came out of that experience?
HWT: That happened in 2000 when I was in grad school. In going through the process of mourning and loss, I realized that I wasn’t alone. And recognizing if you’re not rich and famous the only real evidence of your life are the people who you impacted. Sometimes, if you’re fortunate, you can have a tombstone, but most people who die don’t even have that.
So I asked people who were affected by his life or death to pose for portraits for me. I did a project called Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake. I also revisited pictures I had taken at his funeral, using the language of advertising like the Mastercard “Priceless” campaign of the time, and talked about how even in mourning we’re still being marketed to.
AM: Much of your work has been related to advertising images. How did your interest in that begin?
HWT: I believe the ‘80s was really a watershed decade for commerce becoming a ubiquitous part of everyday life. Most of what we did and saw was branded, with the explosion of transnational corporations like Nike and MTV. So advertising was definitely my second language. I had been speaking it, like most people, for a long time, but I had realized that I wanted to use it rather than just listen.
AM: In Branded, you used it by applying images of branding onto bodies. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
HWT: I wanted to use the language of advertising to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about such as slavery and the way in which commodity culture shapes our notion of ourselves and value of other people.
AM: What was the reaction to Branded when you first exhibited it?
HWT: Usually there’s never one reaction. Some people found it interesting; some people didn’t care. But overall what I’m most impressed with is the fact that the work has continued to be relevant and gain relevance now 14, 15 years later. Every artist hopes that the work they do will be relevant beyond the moment that they make it in. And I think that’s what’s really exciting to me about that work.
AM: For Unbranded, you took away the context from advertising images, just leaving the images. What did you learn from that?
HWT: I did two Unbranded series. One was called Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968 to 2008. The other one was Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915 to 2015.
Each of these series, where I removed advertising information from ad images, were focusing on specific demographic groups that ads were targeted to. Black people as a demographic weren’t a market that people were interested in back in the ‘60s.
Typically, if you saw a person of African descent, they were a servant. But with the emergence of a black middle class, and as a result of the Civil Rights movement, you started to see more and more brown-skinned people in advertising. And I wanted to track this kind of corporate notion of blackness over 40 years.
And then in Unbranded: A Century of White Women, I took a period where most women in the United States weren’t legally empowered to vote and I tracked from 1915 to 2015, when the first viable female candidate for presidency was announced. So the project really becomes this timeline of American history through the lens of this notion of a white, female identity from a period where it was very uniform and very controlled.
AM: You started a project in 2011 called The Truth Booth. Why did you start that project?
HWT: It’s important to mention it’s a collaboration with Ryan Alexiev, Jim Ricks and Will Sylvester. It’s really about perspectives – how different people can have a different perspective on the same object or issue. The truth is something very contentious that people fight and kill each other over and debate. And The Truth Booth became a platform for it – a forum to invite all versions of the truth.
AM: What were some of the things that you heard from The Truth Booth?
HWT: Over 10,000 people went in The Truth Booth and the beauty is seeing the wisdom that different people share and recognizing how our prejudices based on someone’s look or their age or their geographics limit our ability to hear them.
AM: Your work Question Bridge aims to fight stereotypes of African American men. What are the biggest challenges around fighting stereotypes?
HWT: Question Bridge is a collaboration with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The biggest challenge is that we’re told at a very young age not to judge a book by its cover, and then taught by society always to put on a good cover and to judge everyone else by the cover that they put on.
The challenge is recognizing the hypocrisy in this and that two people can be from the same family and have very diverse cultural experiences and views on life. Therefore, how likely is it that people from socially fabricated groups of millions of people have more in common than they do with anyone else? Question Bridge is really trying to show that there’s as much diversity in any given demographic as there is outside of it.
AM: And that is why you say that race is a myth.
HWT: Well, yes, it was created to keep certain people in control and certain people under the thumb of that control.
AM: As an African-American artist, what kinds of preconceptions do you face?
HWT: I think there’s a preconception that I think about race a lot. Probably true, because it’s not real, and it shapes my life. So how can I not think about it a lot? But I’ve learned enough to not presume that people are presuming things about me or about my work, meaning there are many times where I’ve been misjudged or prejudged, but there are many times where I’ve misjudged and prejudged viewers – African American and non African American.
AM: It takes courage to put out some of the work that you’ve created. Do you ever feel nervous about how your work might be received – that it’s too provocative?
HWT: Well, I think provocative is good as long as it’s not destructive. I think I don’t ever make things with the agenda of being harmful or destructive, but you never know if somebody might perceive something that is made in one spirit in a very different way.
AM: You have two recently installed public sculptures, All Power to All People (an Afro pick) and Love Over Rules. Can you tell me a bit about them?
HWT: Public space is more and more contended about what kind of objects, who we celebrate, and what we celebrate. So I decided that I wanted to make statements, and one of the statements my cousin made that had a profound effect on me was, “Love overrules.” I thought of that being read multiple ways, both as “overrules” and “over rules” and the different ways you can interpret a single statement. So the neon flicker is between saying “Love Overrules” and “Love Rules” and “Love Over Rules.” In public space, where most of it is dominated by ads and commerce, putting things out that make different kinds of statements is important.
With Afro pick, I was inspired by artists like Claes Oldenburg, who would notoriously put different everyday objects – whether they be a spoon or clothespin or a symbol – into the public space as a sculpture. I decided that Afro pick would be an important thing to add to that lexicon.
AM: What are some of your upcoming projects?
HWT: There’s an equal justice initiative, which is in Alabama. It’s led by Bryan Stevenson. He’s opening a national lynching memorial. So I’ll be having a sculpture on display in that park and we’ll be working on public sculptures at Brooklyn Bridge in New York as well as exhibitions at museums in Oregon as well as Delaware and Florida and Chicago in 2018.
AM: Do you feel that this is a good time to be an artist?
HWT: Is there ever a bad time or is there ever a good time? All we really have is now, but now is then, and then is now. So that’s what I’m trying to encourage myself to think about – that we sometimes think about our moment as if it’s the first or the last – but it’s part of a much larger continuum.
For more information on Hank Willis Thomas, please visit hankwillisthomas.com.