Gaining Knowledge – Part Two: Photo Conceptual Artist,Hank Willis Thomas

7 Mar

This second talk that carried the thread of black male identity as one of its’ themes, took place at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, right across the street from the Providence Athenaeum, which hosted the talk on Black Dandyism.

Hank Willis Thomas, is a photo conceptual artist whose work deals with identity, history, and popular culture.  In his late 30’s, Thomas received his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and his MFA in Photography from California College of the Arts.  He has exhibited nationally and internationally, and  has work in the collections of the Whitney Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art.

Friendly and down-to-earth, Thomas began with letting us know that the  inspiration for his work comes from the notion that truth is better than fiction–while showing a slide from a trip to Cambodia of a Buddha statue holding a Mastercard sign that said Welcome; and secondly, that he doesn’t believe in the construct of race, but is drawn to the Western notion of the black/white binary race construct.  Thomas tells us he is also inspired by his mother, Deborah Willis, a photographer, historian and academic, who has written numerous books chronicling the history of African-American photographers, something that had not really been done to any extent before her time. A book he came to know through his mother, The Sweet Fly Paper of Life, a collaborative photo essay book written by Langston Hughes with photos by Roy DeCarava, which gave voice to black artistry and life in 1950’s Harlem, was also an inspiration.

Thomas asked the crowd gathered that evening if they’d rather hear about the trajectory of his work over time, or if they just wanted to fast forward to a bunch of really cool stuff he could show us from the end of his slide presentation.  The audience laughed, but voted for the trajectory.  Luckily, we got both.

Thomas cited two dates, 2000 and 2008, as anchors in defining him as an artist.  In 2000, his cousin, Songha Willis, who he was very close to, was murdered outside of a nightclub in Philadelphia-robbed of the small amount of money he had in his wallet, his friends were robbed of their jewelry.  The thieves, senselessly shot the young man in his head while he lay helpless on the ground.  This happened shortly after Thomas had graduated from NYU, was still living in the city working as a photographer’s assistant, and as he described it,not feeling very ambitious about his own artistic work.

Deep in grief over the loss of his cousin, Thomas decided to go to graduate school and further his art education.  While his early work as an undergrad centered around the idea of the “frame” of photography, and what goes on outside of the frame–the things we don’t see, Thomas felt at a loss of what his work would now be about.

Not knowing what he was doing, he photographed his cousin’s crime scene.  He took photos at the funeral.  It was at the funeral that Thomas says he “stopped being a photographer in earnest.”

At the California College for the Arts in San Francisco, more personal, sad family news came.  Thomas’s mother and grandmother were both diagnosed with breast cancer. (He lets us know that, thankfully, both lived through their illness.)  He was consumed with doing work that centered around the senseless violence that took his cousin’s life, but he wondered how his photographs would connect with his audience.  Who would care, he asked?

He persevered.  Thomas began making photo portraits of all of the people who knew and mourned his cousin, and showed the collection at an exhibition titled, Bearing Witness:  Murder’s Wake.  Thomas explained this time period of processing his cousin’s death through the making of his art as cathartic, yet painful.

Image from Bearing Witness

One more related piece of work that proved for me to be a powerful punch to the gut, was a collaborative stop-motion animation film Thomas made with artist, Kambui Olujimi, using GI Joe dolls.  Set outside a night club we see the three male dolls out of their army fatigues sporting jeans and knit caps.  One of the men is dressed more plainly in jeans and a jacket.  The other two, old high school friends of the first man, wear large gold chains around their necks.  Without a preface from Thomas telling us what we were about to witness before the film began, I am at first confused about what I am watching.

But when the first man says good-bye to his friends and right afterward is met up with two gunmen who ask him for his money, I knew fully well what I am watching:  as Thomas cops to afterward, it’s the re-creation of the last four minutes of his cousin’s life.

A pit formed in my stomach as I watched Thomas’s cousin on the ground, with the gunman standing over his head, hovering for moments while his accomplice tells him, “let’s get out of here.” Only instead of running off right away, he shoots the cousin in the head, then flees.  Deep red blood flows out of the doll’s head onto the fake snow set.  But, it doesn’t matter.  It’s as if I just witnessed a murder live, and have been dragged to the bottom of despair over the loss of this young man’s life.  Even more so, I physically felt the power of Thomas’s art to get me to feel how he felt about this loss, and for me, the importance of creating meaning in our own lives while we are still alive.

Still from video Winter in America by Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi

Still from video, Winter In America


As Thomas moves on from this work, another defining moment comes after reading the book, Michael Jordan and the Transglobal Economy by Walter LaFeber.  While  Thomas explored black men and violence through his earlier work regarding his cousin’s murder, Thomas began to tackle the idea of racial construct, popular culture and consumerism.

Stating that because he was one of two photography graduate students at CCA, while the rest were fine arts majors, Thomas found it hard to receive critical feedback on his photographic work.  His fellow students didn’t have language to read photographs, so Thomas just “hacking around” cut and paste a clip art image of a silhouette of a tree with a silhouette of Michael Jordan’s famous flying through the air dunk shot–only thing, instead of flying through the air, Jordan is hanging from the tree with a noose around his neck.

Hang Time by Hank Willis Thomas

This stark image was something his colleagues could visually and conceptually latch onto and talk about, and Thomas knew he was onto something worth exploring further.  A portfolio of work, silhouettes and appropriated photographs examined the notion that perpetrators of popular culture could create a monolithic idea of one race, through the avenues of advertising and consumerism.  Thomas took that and exposed it, turned it on his head.  An Absolut ad becomes a work that says Absolute Power.  In Thomas’s hands, the familiar bottle is sliced open and we have a bird’s eye view into the inside of the bottle which is crammed with African slaves lying side-by-side, filling every curve, a recreation of an image not unlike the Amistad slave ship.  There are more appropriated images of basketball players in nooses–is the branding here, strange fruit, Thomas asks?  Are today’s black athletes again just black bodies being sold on the market?  This important work, published in a monograph, Pitch Blackness, 2008, became a moment that Thomas felt defined him, let him know who he was.

Thomas went on to further explore the myths advertising creates about who people are and what they care about in the form of appropriated photographs.  One body of work in this area takes a look at cigarette ads.  Thomas takes the glossy advertisements, and he “removes” the cigarette to exaggerate the over-the-top, glamorous, yet ridiculous poses that are supposed to create desire within the black community to be like the models in the ads.  Another powerful piece is a grouping of framed texts, all variations of the famed statement I AM A MAN, from the 1968 civil rights sanitation workers movement, captured in photographs by photographer, Ernest Withers.  In Thomas’s hands, the statement is turned into word paintings, each one different:  You The Man – What A Man – I Am Man – I Am Human – I Am Many – I Am Am I- I Am I Am – I Am Amen.

Appropriated Cigarette Advertisement by Hank Willis Thomas

Thomas has also done some collaborative work with Cause Collective, a group of artists, designers and ethnographers who bring innovative art into the public realm.  While Thomas says he is easily lured by race, class and history as influences in his work, and with Cause Collective he helped create a collaborative video piece called Questioning Bridge, which films questions on identity by African-American men posed to and answered by African-American men, Thomas also shared an inspiring clip on another Cause Collective project, called the Truth Booth, which is a giant inflatable speech bubble-shaped booth with the word Truth written across it.  It has traveled to Ireland, and the United States, and I believe will continue to travel to different art festivals and events.  The Truth Booth ask folks to step inside and record in 90 seconds, what their version of the truth is.  The videos, ranging from one’s revealing of their own personal fears and worries, to much broader, philosophical thoughts, including one video by a twelve-year old boy from Ireland that blew me away, are disarming, charming, and deeply human.  I could have watched it all day.

But, alas, the talk drew to a close with Thomas bringing us full-circle.  He again referenced how his work continues to use the idea of framing.  The questions Thomas hears now in his work, rather than the early one of what goes on outside the frame, are:  how do we claim our truths, and, how do we tell our own stories?

You can learn more about Hank Willis Thomas’s work at  You can learn more about the work of Cause Collective by clicking on the link here.


Photo Credits:

Hank Willis Thomas portrait, Image by Hank Willis Thomas, photo source:

Bearing Witness, Image by Hank Willis Thomas, photo source:

Still From Winter In America (original video by Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi),  photo source:

Hang Time, Image created by Hank Willis Thomas, photo source:

Appropriated Cigarette ad created by Hank Willis Thomas, photo source:








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  1. I Was Wrong: Black People Did Laugh at Django Unchained Hood Scene | Wendy Jane's Soul Shake - March 13, 2013

    […] on this blog, zinged me at the artist’s talk I went to recently by photo conceptual artist,  Hank Willis Thomas.    During his talk Thomas, who is black, mentioned a public installation of a photo mural he made […]

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