Hank Willis Thomas: ‘Ideas crop up out of thin air, like bubbles, and I’m just trying to trap them’
The artist talks about grabbing people’s attention to make them think about things they normally wouldn’t think about, recapturing or re-experiencing historical moments, and how he still has the mind of a photographer, even if that’s not where he always ends up
by A WILL BROWN
Hank Willis Thomas (b1976) is an American photo-conceptual artist who works in photography, video, film, installation and sculpture. He also has a collaborative practice, working as a member of the Cause Collective on multidisciplinary installations and projects that are often in public spaces. Thomas’s work emerges from his unique understanding of, and research into, archives – from advertisements to collections of objects – and addresses themes related to identity, race, history and popular culture.
A Will Brown: My first introduction to your work was seeing your video collaboration with Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America, when it was on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I was struck by both the content and method of storytelling – GI Joe action figures enacting what was, to you, a very personal scene of violence and death. How did you come to use video for this work, and can you break down the aesthetic choice of using military action figures?
Hank Willis Thomas: The GI Joe action figures are the same ones that I played with as a child, making scenes like the one played out in Winter in America. I dreamed up similar roles and scenarios as a kid and, strangely, they became real in some ways. I needed to reflect on that, on the reality of those fantasy scenes. I used stop-motion animation because it’s a choppy and playful medium and I felt it was important to tell a serious story in a new way. Using action figures and stop-motion was meant to be disarming.
AWB: To follow-up on Winter In America, how often do you collaborate this specifically and outwardly to make works? Is collaboration key for you? How does it play into your work?
HWT: I’ve done several collaborative projects and Winter in America is just one of them. Others are the video Question Bridge, an installation called The Truth Booth, and several more done with a group that I am a part of called Cause Collective, which is made up of a number of people: Jim Ricks, Jorge Sanchez, Will Sylvester, Natasha L Logan, Bayete Ross Smith, Jessica Ingram and Ryan Alexiev. I will continue to make collaborative work.
AWB: What would you say is the most central part of your practice as an artist? I know you have studied photography, but you branch out into so many other forms. What is essential about each of your main mediums?
HWT: I don’t have one central part of my practice in terms of sources or materials, but I have always been interested in archives, which take shape through many forms. I wouldn’t say that I have a medium that is my main medium, though. For each body of work or particular work, I try to find the best way to define the subject at hand, which can take shape through a variety of ways. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with mirrors that have photographic images adhered to them, or inlaid. This has been a summer project and two of these pieces are in my exhibition, Primary Sources, at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University. There will also be some sculpture, a video, some photography and some manipulated images. There are at least four different mediums in the show.
AWB: What was it like working with the Public Art Fund [a not-for-profit organisation that aims to bring contemporary art to a wide audience in New York] on your recent project, The Truth Is I see You, which is installed along the MetroTech Promenade in Brooklyn?
HWT: I think working in public space is a whole new game, for lack of a better phrase. You have to rethink what you know and what you have learned. What I am most interested in when I get to show work in a public or private space is how to make things that are relevant for people who pass through that space every day: how do you grab people’s attention and make them think about things that they normally wouldn’t think about?
The Public Art Fund project is about language, and specifically the language of truth, and the forms I installed provide a particular avenue or catalyst for talking about issues around this notion. Doing two shows [The Truth Is I see You and The Truth Booth] at once with the Public Art Fund was great. It was important for me to see how the artist who had worked in MetroTech Promenade right before me altered the space, which helped push and challenge me to use my own ideas to alter the space. After a lot of confusion and hard work from a lot of people, to see it all work, structurally and conceptually, in the public sphere was really interesting. Also, having a non-market-oriented show was new as well, making something about just language, the truth and ideas.
AWB: Can you describe the project? There seem to be a few component parts?
HWT: There are a few, yes. There is a tree sculpture, a bunch of text signs that look like thought bubbles, there is the inflatable Truth Booth, and then there are benches that act as open thought bubbles. The Truth Booth was just up on the opening and it will be back up three more times during the exhibition.Part of it is collaborative, with Cause Collective, and other parts are my own thing.
AWB: Have you been able to watch people being in the space and using it? If so, what has that that been like?
HWT: I have, but not as much as I would like. Seeing it online, though, has been interesting. To see people in images engaging with the work in a playful and sculptural way has been great. It’s also nice to experience and witness people having relaxing or meditative moments with the works, which exist within a juxtaposition between art, ideas and public space.
AWB: What are some of your favourite cities and places to see art?
HWT: I have been so busy that this summer, I can’t say much. Obviously, Venice was amazing. I was at Prospect earlier this year, which was also great. One of things I appreciate about travelling around the country and the world is seeing smaller cities in places such as Illinois, and going to Cleveland, Cincinnati, Milwaukie or Little Rock, Arkansas. These smaller places don’t have a reputation for being art hubs, but, now, I see that these places definitely have a great appreciation for contemporary art, even in smaller towns. Of course, New York, where I live, is expensive for an artist and it is really nice for artists to be able to be creative and make a living at the same time. The reality is that if you are worried about rent all the time, it is really hard to be productive and creative.
AWB: Where does an idea for a work usually emerge from? Are there particular sources of inspiration and interest that you find yourself coming back to – specific artists, exhibitions, artworks, films, places?
HWT: Unfortunately, no, ideas and sources are all kind of cropping up out of thin air, like bubbles, and I’m just trying to trap them. I’m really interested in archives in many forms: they can be an old book, a television show, a photograph that I see on the wall. Mostly, I would say that I am inspired by visual culture in its various forms, and the connection between the past and the present. In bringing out the visual culture that we know to be more about ideas and aesthetics. My work is drawn from the multitude of experiences that I have had. There are so many things out there. So far it has been great to be able to have a career that has so much latitude. Although I started as a photographer, photography has now become less and less relevant for me as a singular medium. Along the way, it’s been great to see how the ideas I started with in photography have translated into so many other things. I still have the mind of a photographer, even if that’s not where I always end up.
AWB: Your work has become much more sculptural in the past few years, even your photographic work. I know you started more as a photographer during and after your time at California College of the Arts (CCA). What is bringing you further into sculpture and object-making?
HWT: I can’t think of any moment or thing in particular that is bringing me to sculpture, or changing what forms I work in. Jens Hoffmann [former director of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco] included me in a few exhibitions and he basically gave me homework – giving the topic and asking for work related to it. That has definitely influenced some of my ideas. When he said, “We are doing a show about Huckleberry Finn”, I thought, OK, what does this mean to me? Typically, photography doesn’t suffice as the only way of bringing an idea across, so I had to expand. A lot of the growth has come out of opportunities that have been brought to me by curators through exhibitions that I have been in. If you care more about ideas than medium, this strategy is liberating, as you get to challenge yourself beyond that material form. It also meant that Jens gave a lot of trust to the artist to do something. Most often, artists are expected to do the tricks that they are known for doing, but in those instances, working in that way, you get to do something unexpected.
AWB: Can you tell me specifically about your recent work with arms and hands? I’m thinking here about Liberty (2015), Opportunity (2015), Tip Off (2014) and Raise Up (2014), to name a few.
HWT: Sculpture is typically about a completed thing or gesture, and I was thinking with these works about how to address the incomplete thing, a partial image or form – if you could make a 3D picture of a moment in time and then imagine what it would look like if you could take a slice out of that moment. I was thinking about that idea of that which pierces you and that which sticks with you about an image – specifically about Roland Barthes’ idea from his book Camera Lucida about the punctum, that which pierces you. I wanted to, and continue to, make work about what sticks with me, and with these projects I’m interested in how to distill the meaning through sculpture.
AWB: The hand motif is an enduring and powerful one for you. How did you come to it, and what, if any, other projects are you working on with similar forms?
HWT: I’m trying to, but for further works it has to be the right image and the right concept. I try to find things that won’t be too redundant, but that need to be related to the other works, but am always working to bring it back to the archive. Thinking about historical moments and how I can recapture them or re-experience them.
AWB: Your work Amandla (2014) juxtaposes the word for power in Zulu, Amandla, with a raised closed black fist, a gesture for black power, and power in general, and also the South African post-apartheid symbol for a kind of new deal, or new era, against a yellow structure that looks like a steel window or the side of a piece of industrial machinery of sorts. Can you break the work down a bit further? What are the relationships between the hand and the yellow mount or backdrop? How did you come to make this work and why?
HWT: The hand in that work, and the background, are from an image of a person being arrested during Apartheid in South Africa. The person being arrested decided to make that gesture by sticking their hand out of the breather hole in their cell. Power in Zulu is Amandla. The gesture is a gripping one in knowing that the people on the other side of the arm meant ill will, and that the figure is taking a risk and may never see their arm again. I was thinking about the power and potency of that statement. I was inspired by that, and wanted to elevate it.
AWB: I’m curious about your series of works that relate to, and include, the figure costumed in half-black and half-white, The Wayfarer. Can you explain some of the ideas behind this series, how you see them functioning as a body of work, and what some of your references, or touchstones, are here?
HWT: That is a work done in collaboration with Sanford Biggers. The character that is depicted is called the wayfarer. I wanted to think about the idea of the crossroads and the border. The work is based on an image I found at an archive at Emory University and I wanted to remake that image. The found image is of a man painted half-black and half-white as a vaudeville performer. The work is about double consciousness and what WEB Dubois was writing about at the time, and it’s also about our current president being multi-ethnic. The work also references a Yoruba and Haitian character named Elegba or Legba, who is the guardian of the crossroads of life. He is on the border between life and death, good and bad, and between what life does and doesn’t contain. The work is about hybridity, the complexities of how we actually live v how society pretends we are, as some kind of an absolute black or white. There is also a sense of the person living on the border being a kind of trickster. The works are a kind of optical illusion: when you walk by them, they shift and change.
AWB: I find your piece Absolut Power (2003) quite powerful and imagine it is intense, moving and challenging for many. Can you speak a bit about it, and what other works it relates to?
HWT: The key to that work and series [Branded, 2003] is finding something that isn’t too redundant. Those projects are all unfinished, and I revisited them in 2011 with the series Strange Fruit and the Branded series. In 2011, I made a video called A Common Misunderstanding, which was an extension of the more graphic photographic work. In my work, I’m always trying to find new ways for these ideas to come out.
AWB: I’m also interested in your use of public platforms, benches, billboards and signs for your advertising-related work. How often do you think people look at these images and miss the critical content? The way they blend in, yet become hard to miss or read is a great strategy. How often are you able to install these works in public places?
HWT: The works are usually shown through an institution or a curatorial conceit – an exhibition most of the time. They have been shown in Chicago, Toronto and in Birmingham Alabama, but not yet as part of a city or city-wide programme.
AWB: To reiterate and reframe, your work has lived in so many spaces and places – from large-scale exhibitions such as the Istanbul Biennial to park benches and billboards in Chicago. What are the most interesting exhibition spaces for you?
HWT: It’s hard for me to say, and my mother being a curator, I have always seen exhibition spaces as places that change meaning and change functionality, dependent on what is called for or what is being asked of them. I’ve always been a big fan of exhibition design, and how the same place can continually take a different shape. It’s interesting how social media has affected our relationship to space, how we can have a relationship with a space that we have never been to. Pretty much every time I’ve done something in public, it has always been a new and exciting thing – particularly, to look at a space and have an idea, or no idea, and then, over the course of the creation of the project, to realise something. The subject of a work is just a figment of your imagination and then becomes real and actually exists.
AWB: Your work A Place to Call Home (Africa-America), 2009 also engages a subtlety that at first glance one may miss, as the two continents look and read as naturally connected, that perhaps South America’s shape wasn’t the way the viewer remembered it to be. The use of the colour black, implies, critically, that many assume that the only thing that unifies, or brought these two continents together in the first place, and in some ways now, is that both have populations of dark-skinned people, as though blackness is the only exterior quality valued as a connection between North America and Africa. How does this work operate for you? Do you think of it differently a few years after making it?
HWT: The work very specifically addresses the notion of where we African Americans come from. The work is a manifestation of something that our imaginations have illustrated: the piece is more specifically about thinking through that idea. As an American, the ideas of who you are and where you are from are always asked, and the same when I go to Africa, people ask me where I am from and neither answer, Africa or America is ever sufficient. This work is about the experience I come from.
AWB: What new projects and exhibitions are you working on?
HWT: I’m really excited about an exhibition that I’m curating at the Goodman Gallery in South Africa called To Be Young Gifted and Black, which features a number of artists including Adam Pendleton, Omar Victor Diop and Derrick Adams, Zoe Buckman. It’s been great for me, as I’ve been going to South Africa, to Johannesburg and Cape Town quite a bit since 2004. The exhibition will be in Johannesburg.
• Hank Willis Thomas: Primary Sources is at the David Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, 29 August – 25 October 2015. The Truth Is I See You is on view in Brooklyn, 4 August 2015 – 3 June 2016, and The Truth Booth will visit four times during the course of the exhibition.