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An Interview with Hank Willis Thomas, Part I

Beginning in February, Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…, the first survey of the acclaimed and award-winning artist’s work, will be on view at Crystal Bridges. In anticipation of his upcoming exhibition, Crystal Bridges Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Allison Glenn recently spoke with Thomas about his thoughts on art, society, family, and Beyoncé.


AG: What brought you to photography as a medium?

HWT: Both of my parents are photographers and I grew up in a household full of photographs—most of them are by people who aren’t related to me and many who aren’t famous—because my mother was so in awe of the representations that black photographers had created of African-descended peoples that were very much in contrast to the images that mainstream society was producing and celebrating.


AG: How do you think photography or images function in the world?

HWT: In many ways. I think images shape the world, because reality is not a fixed thing, it’s a perception, and that perception is shaped by the dominant perspective of the people of power. That’s why you can have very different truths in different households and in different parts of the world, and people go to war over these truths. The ways in which photography shapes these perceptions of the truth is massive, because it’s through these images that we learn and decide who is valuable, whose lives are worth preserving, celebrating, and protecting, and what is important.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Smokin’ Joe Ain’t J’mama/Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America 1968–2008, 1978/2006. Chromogenic print, 31.45 × 30 inches. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas


AG: In your Unbranded series, specifically Reflections in Black by Corporate America and A Century of White Women, you look at representation and identity in advertising, and how images can be manipulated to reinforce stereotypes. What drew you to advertising as an area to unpack these ideas?

HWT: In many ways, I’m a product of my generation, the “MTV Generation.” We were very influenced by media and popular culture in a way that previous generations weren’t. I learned as much about the world through television as I did through anything else, and television is fueled by advertising. I worked as an intern on the Chris Rock Show and as a production assistant on Saturday Night Live in the film unit, so I saw a lot of the ways in which advertising could and should be challenged and reconsidered. At that time, I was also looking at the work of Jeff Koons, Barbara Kruger, and Richard Prince, particularly his Marlboro Man series. I realized that in the age of digital scanning and Photoshop, you can take an advertising image and literally deconstruct it or un-brand it, because advertising isn’t really about the products, it’s about what meaning you can give to a product through images and text.


“I think images shape the world.” – Hank Willis Thomas


AG: It’s interesting to hear about your relationship to popular and material culture. There’s this quote in the exhibition catalog where you say, “I’m much more influenced by Beyoncé than I am by Picasso.” And my question is, is this true?

HWT: I would not say that I consider myself a super-fan of Beyoncé in any real way. But I will say that seeing her perform live from a few steps away changed my life. And I say that because, basically, she smiled at me and I smiled back. And I recognized in that moment that she wasn’t just smiling at me, she was smiling at the 60,000 people behind me as well. She, in her smile, is projecting an energy that is supposed to emanate through me to everyone in the space. And that is something that she does hundreds of times a year, multiple times a day. She’s created a level of excellence for herself that people anticipate and then she goes about living up to it and surpassing it. So I feel like Picasso may be timeless, but Beyoncé’s eternal.


AG: And so then, if you’re influenced by Beyoncé, is it safe to say that you’ve set up a certain level of excellence for yourself that is eternal also?

HWT: I try. [laughs]


Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), I Am. Amen., 2009. Liquitex on canvas, 25 1/4 × 19 × 1/4 × 2 1/4 inches each. Installation view. Collection of Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas


AG: While we’re talking about contemporary art and culture, why do you think it’s important to pay attention to contemporary art, or art that is being created today?

HWT: Because there’s never been more people who feel that they have something to say, and there are people who will listen. Typically, people from certain communities always made the work, but by and large, they made it assuming that the majority of the world would never care about them, whereas these days, we have social media and a more connected society. We see that we can build an audience that is not necessarily tied to a geographic or ethnographic community, but instead, a global community. We see ourselves as part of a global conversation where you can really talk about contemporary art as a manifestation of the hive mind. We’re influenced by so many things, people, and cultures, and so many moments in history that we don’t even know where the inspiration for much of our work comes from, but it really says a lot more about our society than you’ll find in most history books, because this is the contemporaneous product of the subconscious mind. Looking back, most of what we know about ancient cultures is through their art. It’s not about the written document as much as it is about the cultural products they produced, whether it be through architecture or sculpture, painting, food, clothing. Various forms of contemporary art are the clues to what binds cultures.


“I feel like Picasso may be timeless, but Beyoncé’s eternal.” – Hank Willis Thomas


AG: I want to talk a bit about collaboration. You’re an avid collaborator. You work with everyone. You and I have had the opportunity to work together on various projects over the last six years.

HWT: We first worked together on a bus bench project in Chicago.

AG: We did work on a bus bench project, yes! How can art museums help to foster discourse for their guests?

HWT: I don’t think a lot of museums do a good enough job of showing the connection between the work that artists are doing (historically and contemporarily) to various political events and happenings of their lifetime. For example, we’ll go back to Picasso, who was seen as the most influential artist of the twentieth century – it’s not a coincidence that his work and the work of other modern artists changed dramatically right around the same time that Europe started to explore and colonize Africa. How can we not talk about the birth of contemporary modern art being African thought?


Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976). Guernica, 2016. Mixed media including sport jerseys. 131 x 281 inches. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.


AG: I appreciate you bringing up the relationship between Europe and Africa. That’s really great.

HWT: We’ve seen so much about the domination and exploitation of Africans by Europeans but we know virtually nothing about the domination and exploitation of Europe by Africans. I feel like those are the things we’re slightly moving toward but we should be thinking more about the global impact on and of artists.


[This concludes Part I of our interview with Hank Willis Thomas. Read Part II here.]

Get your tickets to Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… and learn more about the exhibition.


[Cover photo: Artist Hank Willis Thomas at the Portland Art Museum. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, Oregon.]


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