Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas weaves history and image to show that anything is possible when motivated by love.

Art, for Thomas, is a means to visualise a message. Using historic photographs as references, 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.

For details of our collaboration with Christine Wong Yap, Hank Willis Thomas and artist-run collective For Freedoms, click here.

 

Highlights
  • An All Colored Cast, solo show at Kayne Griffin Corcoran, Los Angeles, 2020
  • All Things Being Equal..., solo show at Crystal Bridges Museum of Art, Arkansas, 2020
  • Black Survival Guide, or How to Live Through a Police Riot, solo show at Delaware Art Museum, Delaware, 2020
  • Awarded an honorary Doctor of Philosophy at Maryland Institute College of Arts, Baltimore, 2017
  • My Life is Ours, solo show at Ben Brown Fine Arts, Hong Kong, 2018
  • History Doesn't Laugh, solo show at Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg, 2014
  • Work in collections including Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Frac Aquitaine, Bordeaux; Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn; Detroit's Institute of Arts, Detroit.
Visa by Hank Willis Thomas
Visa, Hank Willis Thomas, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.
Verve by Hank Willis Thomas
Verve, Hank Willis Thomas, 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

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, 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.

“I think public art is propaganda, frankly."
Who Taught You to Love? by Hank Willis Thomas
Who Taught You To Love?, Hank Willis Thomas, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.
Photographed in Des Moines, IA by Jeff Scroggins

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 which 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.

Ernest Withers, Memphis Sanitation Worker’s Strike, 1968
Memphis Sanitation Worker's Strike, Ernest Withers, 1968.
I AM AMEN by Hank Willis Thomas
I AM, AMEN, Hank Willis Thomas, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Throughout Thomas’ oevure 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.

“The road towards progress is always under construction. The work will not be complete in our lifetime.”
The Cotton Bowl by Hank Willis Thomas
The Cotton Bowl, Hank Willis Thomas, 2011. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery.

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.

All artworks courtesy of the artist.
Portrait courtesy of Levi Mandel and Ben Brown Fine Arts, London. 

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Hank Willis Thomas Portrait