Hank Willis Thomas

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

Hank Willis Thomas in his studio standing over a large and colourful tapestry laid on the table before him
Billboard by a highway and caravan park which reads 'ALL LI ES MATTER' with white type on black background
Red car rotated vertically crashing into the ground with a hedge behind it
4 images

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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Practice overview

Art, for Thomas, is a means to visualise a message. Using historic photographs as reference, he deftly moves through sculpture, photography, film and installation. An archive-led approach is largely inspired by the artist’s mother - photographer and art historian Deborah Willis. Thomas 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, at once recalling Fauve expressionist Henri Matisse and the embroidered appliqué of traditional Ghanaian Asafo flags. As one of the founders of 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.

Hope for progress is balanced with the reality of oppression. I Am Amen (2009) is a text-based artwork in which Thomas recreates a notable photograph by Ernest Withers of the sanitation worker’s strike of 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The image shows Black folks holding placards declaring: “I Am A Man.” Thomas remixes the statement into a poem, moving through reinterpretations “I am A Man,” “Ain’t I A Woman” and arriving at the work’s title, “I Am Amen.” Drawing from the history of a nation that asserts ‘liberty and justice for all’ yet has systematically refused to allow Black employees to sit beside their white counterparts, Thomas elucidates the harmful ironies of white supremacy still profoundly present in contemporary America.

Throughout Thomas’ oeuvre, the afterlife of transatlantic slavery is stark. Branded, a photographic series from 2003, shows Black bodies with scars in the shape of the emblematic Nike tick. The scars, digitally imposed to disconcertingly real effect, reference the branding of bodies: a dehumanising tactic used by slave owners to enforce and exhibit their ownership of Black people. By recontextualising this vicious act, Thomas signals the way today’s corporations use Blackness to generate profit. Similarly, Cotton Bowl (2011) shows a football player crouched in a scrimmage opposite 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