Hank Willis Thomas, a self-described “photo-conceptual artist,” spoke about his work, artistic practice and recent projects recently with Richard Powell, Duke’s John Spencer Bassett Professor of Art, Art History and Visual Studies.
Thomas’ talk was in conjunction with the opening of his multi-site exhibition, curated by Diego Cortez, which presents a survey of seven of the artist’s works from series such as “Branded,” “Unbranded” and “Rebranded” at the John Hope Franklin Center on Erwin Road. At the Franklin Humanities Insitute in Smith Warehouse, a balloon in the shape of a massive speech bubble containing the word “HOPE” flies above the building. Willis’ still-in-progress “Question Bridge: Black Male” plays inside the building. The video is a one-channel draft of a multi-channel video in which black men of various generations and backgrounds form a dialogue .
Thomas’ work engages the power of images with a specific focus on questions of advertising, identity formation and black masculinity. Intervening on the pervasive images of culture, Thomas’ talk delved deeper into the history of his engagement with images, something which emerged in large part from his relationship with his mother Deborah Willis. Indeed his mother influenced him, but Thomas’ proclivity toward the (re)presentation of images exceeds linguistic representation, opening his audiences up to the sociocultural factors which produce these images (and what these images produce) as well as the richness of the feelings they evoke.
Much of Thomas’ recent travels informed his talk. Presenting appropriations of American capitalism in China, Willis gestured toward potential future projects. But what stood out were his comments regarding a recent multi-nation trip to Africa in which he witnessed the cultural colonization of Senegalese club music, a country with a rich musical tradition, by American hip-hop and pop. Congruent with his cultural preoccupations, it will be interesting to see if and how this informs future work.
Thomas ended the event talking about his rich project at the Amistad Center at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art from 2009-2010. Thomas collaborated with Willie Cole to “pull a Fred Wilson” on the Hartford museum’s archive of art, artifacts and ephemera from its permanent collection. The project, called “Digging Deeper,” is an excavation of a past which often seems confusing, troubling and haunting. Thomas and Cole presented racially charged postcards, figurines and other artifacts, some with obvious function and others less obvious. The project explores the historical representation of race and culture, reminding us of history’s omnipresence and challenging us to consider how the future will remember and conceive of our present. It is as much an archeology of the past as it is of an unknown future.
Ending the talk on “Digging Deeper,” Thomas solicited reactions from an affected audience but was met with silence, undoubtedly due to the strong depth of emotions the installation evoked.
Thomas’s work will be on view at the Franklin Humanities Institute and John Hope Franklin Center through March 4. His collaborative video project with Kambui Olujimi, “Winter In America” (2006), will be in the upcoming Nasher Museum show “Building the Contemporary Collection: Five Years of Acquisitions.”
IMAGE: Hope Balloon above the Smith Warehouse by Hank Willis Thomas with The Blimpworks, Inc. Durham, NC. Photo by Andrew Hibbard