Hank Willis Thomas art, timeless portrayals of racial inequality

Hank Willis Thomas has been addressing America’s racial inequities through his artwork for over 20 years. Still, every single one of Hank Willis Thomas’ searing artworks has a “ripped from the headlines” feel. Thomas examines, explores, interrogates and lays bare the Black experience in America with the varying subtlety of a scalpel and a sledgehammer.

Every piece seems to directly address one or more of the tragedies experienced throughout 2020 by America’s Black community. Take your pick from the recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Damien Daniels to the recent police shootings of Willie Henley and Jacob Blake, the modern day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the disproportionate burden of Covid-19 deaths, the widening wealth gap, a resurgence in overt, public expressions of white supremacy or a throwback, race-baiting president sent from the Jim Crow-era.

His artwork, however, wasn’t inspired by 2020. These pieces weren’t created in 2020.

Thomas’ work reminds us that while millions of new advocates to the equal rights movement have been made in 2020, the traumas which have moved contemporary converts to action are nothing new to those suffering them directly.

The same traumas have been taking place for decades. Generations. Centuries.

“Hank Willis Thomas asks us to see and challenge systems of inequality that are woven into the fabric of contemporary life; he asks us to participate and understand that our participation in a gallery is continuous with participation in the world,” Nathaniel Stein, Associate Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, told me when I wrote about the museum’s exhibition of Thomas’ work in the fall of 2020. “His work invites us to look at history, be unafraid of the lessons it holds for our future, and–paraphrasing him–listen for the parts of each of us that are in others.”

The exhibition catalog from that spectacular show can be purchased here.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), 'Guernica,' 2016. Mixed media, including sport jerseys, 131 × 281 inches. Private Collection.
Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), ‘Guernica,’ 2016. Mixed media, including sport jerseys, 131 × 281 inches. Private Collection. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST AND JACK SHAINMAN GALLERY, NEW YORK. © HANK WILLIS THOMAS.

Over Thomas’ career, the aritst has explored how the visual languages of popular culture, advertising and media shape society and individual perspective, structuring and trading upon notions of race and gender.

“Thomas’s work asks us to see and be critical about the roles we play as participants in systems that support inequality, yet it also tells us that the reason for this hard examination is that we have the power to build fuller life together,” Stein said.

“Hard examination.”

Thomas’ work requires it. You won’t find still lifes of peonies or bucolic landscapes from his studio.

Absolut Power recreates the horrors of slave ships inside an Absolute Vodka bottle. The Cotton Bowl, Strange Fruit, Futbol and Chain, Branded Head, Guernica and others expose stomach-churning through lines connecting slavery to the prevalence of African-Americans in sports. Public Enemy (Black and Gold) lives with onlookers long after it has been experienced.

Thomas’ art is a workout.

It’s also necessary.

Necessary considering how millions of Americans continue to deny that Black lives matter. Necessary where a legal system from policing to prosecution and incarceration continues to disadvantage Black people when compared to whites. Necessary when Americans across the country feel it compelled to take to the streets and protest for equality, and necessary where state governors vow to enact harsher punishments for those protestors while completely failing to address the conditions which drove them to the streets.

Willis’ address of art history is delicious. Especially provocative to me is his Guernica pictured above. This is obviously a reference to the famous Picasso painting of the same name, Thomas’ version constructed out of NBA jerseys. Guernica is my favorite painting. I was fortunate enough to see it in person in my early 30s, long before I was interested in art. Despite that, it left an indelible impact on me. Coincidentally enough, one of my first passions was professional basketball. His mixture of the two is spectacular and deeply contemplative.

Thomas’ use of sports imagery helps his work appeal and connect to a much broader audience than most contemporary art. These two worlds rarely mix, but in the hands of Thomas, do so in a fashion that provides and invites deep commentary into both.

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