Multidisciplinary artist Hank Willis Thomas has swiftly become a prominent figure of the art world with conceptual pieces ranging from photographs, videos, installations, sculptures, and mixed media – all of which are concerned with igniting conversation. While each piece can stand alone, the power of Willis Thomas’ work is the unifying motif found in his repertoire, which deals with identity, history, and popular culture. We sat down with the artist to discuss the constructions of race, Donald Trump, and the commonality of being human.
NeueJournal: A great deal of your work explores the relationship between demonization and fetishization of African American athletes. Why do you think this is the pervasive attitude in society?
Hank Willis Thomas: I think much of the success of the United States is based off of its ability to convince the population that certain people belong in certain places, and then keeping them people in those places. One could argue that the myth of the black male body as seen in American culture is our greatest export. We’ve seen demonization and the fetishization on a global scale, and I think that it’s as true today as it was 500 years ago.
NJ: Has the demonization of African Americans assumed a different form?
HWT: I don’t believe in race; “blackness” is a social construct and “whiteness” is the ultimate social construct. I’m more fascinated with this notion of “whiteness” than I am “blackness”. For instance my last project is called Unbranded: a Century of White Women; part of what I’m exploring is how 100 years ago a lot of the people that we call white today would not have been considered white – Spanish, Irish, Russian, Polish, German, Italian. Somehow over the course of the past century these people have moved into the trope of “whiteness,” which is really in a lot of ways attached to not taking accountability for humanity since you can assimilate into this non-identity, which becomes the dominant identity. “Blackness” is the contrast to it. The crazy thing about black people is that we didn’t create “blackness;” Europeans with commercial interest created it, because in order to turn human beings into property you had to make them non-human. I believe that race is the most successful advertising campaign of all time.
Winter in America, 2006 4:59 min video Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery
NJ: Do you think this is still prevalent today?
HWT: Yes. If you go to any African or South American or Nordic culture you will find that there are always people who are seen as “others,” which allows us to be better. The idea of “Americanness” is very closely associated with this idea of “whiteness.”
NJ: Is this unique to America?
HWT: The idea of American exceptionalism is pervasive in that if you identify as an American you likely have at some point drank the Kool-Aid and bought into the idea that we are better than everyone else. Even if you go somewhere without the intention, it’s still there deep down inside.
NJ: Your work is very raw and direct, addressing socio-political, historical, and racial issues head on. What is the intention of your work?
HWT: I think the take away I would like is pretty simple, and it’s inspired by a James Baldwin quote – “A person is more important than anything else.” That is the bottom line.
Hank Willis Thomas, Haters gon’ hate, 1960/2015. Courtesy the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York]
NJ: You work with different types of mediums. When creating a piece, how do you choose which would be the best medium to represent your intention or craft? Does your initial creative process change with each medium?
HWT: In a lot of ways the medium defines the piece. I think the reason I work in a lot of different mediums is because as an African American I’m often prejudged and deduced before I even enter a room. I think frequently, subconsciously, I’m trying to show that diversity exists within me so I don’t want to be relegated to a simple way of working or a simple predictive way of being seen as a person.
NJ: If you could have been present in any impactful moment in history, which would it be and why? Would you try to alter it?
HWT: There is no time like the present and I might as well try to impact it in the best way possible. The beauty of being a visual artist is that my job is to wake up every day and make my dreams come true. We are living in an age of greater collective consciousness because of the Internet and technology. You can put something in the world and you may not be able to see the direct response or benefit or influence of your own work, but it’s there, and I think we all come to new levels of awakeness every moment. If you pay attention closely you often find that ideas like the ones we are talking about were ignited in conversation with artists and visual artists a decade before. So we are changing tomorrow today.
NJ: What is the first memory you have of art?
HWT: My mother is a curator and photo/art historian so I grew up in a house with several photographs of people whom I don’t have any personal relationship to. So I had to ask myself, ‘who is that person? What is the scenario?’ and it lead me to ask questions about photography beyond the utility of just reporting a moment, to think about how you could say something, make an impact, or shed light on new stories throughout photography.
NJ: If you could speak any language fluently, which one would it be and why?
HWT: That’s a tough one, but there is a language spoken in South Africa that I can barely pronounce called Xhosa, which has these clicks in it. I think the beauty of learning other languages is that it is also another way of thinking and communicating. You all of a sudden have to adjust your mind.
NJ: What is the last film you watched that made you cry?
HWT: A documentary called 5 Broken Cameras, from the perspective of a Palestinian filmmaker of the border. It made me very upset. There is a level of helplessness. When people are so divided they stop being able to see the full humanity of one another and what they have in common, and instead see only what separates them. Everything is more grey than it is black and white, and accepting that you have to evolve is the only way that any species can survive.
NJ: The current presidential election is perhaps one of the most momentous ones in recent times. Who do you want to win?
HWT: I appreciate Hilary Clinton and I appreciate Bernie Sanders, but the beauty of president Trump is that we actually get to watch the empire fall. If he is president it’s gonna be exciting. We will literally watch it go down tubes and it will be a fun ride. He is charismatic and funny…so was Hitler. You prey on people’s insecurities and build them up to make them feel like they are better than other people. Trump romanticizes going back to a time when ‘America was great.’ When was it great? In the 80s for crack heads? Or when AIDS hit? Which part? That is what Hitler did after WWI; it is literally the same script.
NJ: What do you think the world will look like in one hundred years?
HWT: Nina Simone wrote a song called ‘22nd Century’ in 1972. In it she sings about what happens when we reach the user limits of humanity. Because we want to live forever, we want ultimate expression, we want ultimate consumption…we become cyborgs. Once we have everything we want, will we have a reason to live at all?
Photography: Andrew Boyle for NeueJournal