Hank Willis Thomas's practice is deeply concerned with American media systems and their relationship to identity and race relations. Drawing heavily from popular culture, Thomas dissects the commodification of the Black body, particularly its exploitation in sports, film, television and advertising.
The intersection of sports, race and warfare is embedded within Thomas' artwork. Critiquing the media's treatment of the athletic Black body as spectacle, fibreglass sculptures such as Promise and Equilibrium (2016) depict singular limbs coated in metallic car paint and holding, hitting or spinning sports balls. The shiny limbs are fragmented (or severed) from the owner's bodies, emphasising the gap between the media's hero-worship of athletes and the athletes' private subjectivities. Turning to sports uniforms, in 2017 Thomas made a series of quilts from soccer jerseys, the design based on warrior flags made by the Fante people in Ghana as a response to European contact. Similarly, and resembling the repetitive stripes of Frank Stella's paintings, Thomas' 2016 quilt What you see is what you see (Stella) was stitched together with decommissioned prison uniforms.
Thomas also has worked with sports within the framework of branding and corporate competition. For his 2006 photographic series 'B(r)anded', Thomas depicted Nike's iconic swoosh embedded into the skin of Black men, recalling the branding of slaves by their owners. As a follow-up to this project, for the series 'Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America' (2005–08), Thomas removed all logos and text from found magazine ads of African Americans dating from between 1968—the year Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr were assassinated—and 2008—the year Barack Obama was elected as United States president. Pointing to the historic commodification of Black bodies, the photograph The Johnson Family (1981/2007), for example, shows a smiling couple holding a toddler, all overt markers of capitalistic exploitation lifted from their figures.
Similarly riffing on the language of advertisement, Thomas's photograph Priceless (2004) borrows the tropes of a long-running Mastercard advertising campaign. In the work, an image of Black funeral mourners is overlaid with text relaying the costs of various objects including garments ('three-piece suit: $250', 'new socks: $2') and weaponry ('9mm Pistol: $80'). At the bottom of the image is the sobering phrase, 'Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.'
Reflecting on racialised violence with a similar urgency is Thomas' 'Strange Fruit' series. One eponymous photograph from 2011 shows a Black man suspended in mid-air with a basketball held in a hand pulled up by a looped rope. Similarly, Football and Chain (2012) shows a Black football player diving for a touchdown, but his ankle is chained to a post—his mobility, power and potential restrained. Through such works, Thomas points to the stark contrast between America's worship of Black athletes and the resentment that boils over off the field.
Thomas is also known for his special-effect photographs that require flashes (such as from a camera or phone) in order to see their full contents. Viewed in ordinary light, for example, the photograph What happened on that day really set me on a path (red and blue) (2018) appears to contain semi-abstracted and oddly hued shapes. When illuminated with flash, however, the work reveals the forms of an African American woman and white protesters, pointing to the invisibility of certain racial histories. Similarly, in natural lighting I Tried to see a friendly face (2018) shows a lone African American woman walking; when lit with a flash, the faces of taunting white people behind her are revealed.
Community engagement is also central to Thomas' practice. In collaboration with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, Thomas initiated the trans-media art project Question Bridge, which aimed to redefine Black male identity in the 21st century. Travelling across America, the artists asked 160 Black men questions about love, family and community, seeking to build a self-determined representation outside of otherness. The project resulted in a book and three-hour documentary (Question Bridge: Black Males ).
For his 2015 'Philly Block Project', Thomas spent 15 months photographing a city block in North Philadelphia in order to create a 1:1 photographic replica of the neighbourhood and its residents. In 2016, alongside artist Eric Gottesman, Thomas founded an artist-run, non-partisan political engagement organisation called For Freedoms, with the goal of involving creative people in civic activities. As one of their first projects, the organisation invited the public in cities across the country to customise the type of yard signs ubiquitous during elections; under the headers 'Freedom of' and 'Freedom from', participants wrote words and phrases such as 'the mind' and 'violence'.
Another For Freedoms project, and a reaction to the 2016 United States presidential election, the 50 State Initiative sees artist-designed billboards erected in every state. With the same goal, ahead of the 2018 United States mid-term elections, For Freedoms established an auxiliary space in New York City in which to hold talks and special exhibitions.
Born in 1976 in Plainfield, New Jersey, and raised in New York, Thomas earned a BFA in photography and Africana studies at New York University in 1998. He later obtained an MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco, in 2004.
Thomas lives and works in New York.
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The billboards going up around the country this week will have a familiar message for this midterm election: Vote. But featuring images of protests and reminders of the 2016 election, produced by some of the country's best-known artists, the billboards—one for each of the 50 states—will look nothing like your average political...
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