Hank Willis Thomas

Layering history and image to show that anything is possible when motivated by love.

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist born in 1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey. He now lives and works in Brooklyn, New York.

Career

Thomas has delivered more than 150 talks and lectures around the world, educating others on his work, exploring Black progress in the 21st century and spotlighting overlooked historical narratives.

Did you know?

The artist is also one of the co-founders of trailblazing artist-run collective For Freedoms, renowned for billboard campaigns and public artworks designed to increase political engagement and prompt widespread civic conversations - “I think public art is propaganda, frankly.”

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Collaborations with this artist

Practice overview

For Hank Wilis Thomas, art is a means to visualise a message. Moving through sculpture, photography, film and installation, he uses an archive-led approach largely inspired by his mother, photographer and art historian Deborah Willis. He often appropriates pre-existing ephemera from sport and popular culture into his work. Verve (2017) and Visa (2017) for example, rework football jerseys and prison uniforms into quilts, recalling both Fauve expressionist Henri Matisse and the embroidered appliqué of traditional Ghanaian Asafo flags. As a founder of the artist-run collective For Freedoms, Thomas creates monuments and billboards which reshape the sphere of public art. He investigates the intersections of race, identity and consumerism - using his art to dream for progress.

This hope for progress is balanced with the reality of oppression, especially in the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade. Branded (2003) shows Black bodies with scars in the shape of the emblematic Nike tick. The scars, digitally imposed to disconcertingly real effect, reference the dehumanising branding of bodies during slavery. By recontextualising this vicious act, Thomas signals the way today’s corporations commodify Blackness to generate profit. Similarly, Cotton Bowl (2011) shows a football player facing off against another man, also crouched, picking cotton. Layering connections between history and its images, Thomas reminds audiences that the past is a site to learn from and that — when working collectively — we can use love to secure a hopeful future.

“Love is the most effective educational tool of all.”Hank Willis Thomas