By Alice Kim
I’m not one to scare easily, but when I approached Winter in America (2006) by Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi (part of Exposing the Gaze: Gender and Sexuality in Art, on view at the Nasher Museum through June 16), my guard was down. What I saw was a short video loop of talking toy figures decked ou in gold chains gesturing stiffly. I lifted the headset to my ears. The toy figures swaggered back and forth across the screen and the music filled my ears. The thumping of the beat was almost guttural and should have been a warning, but I smiled at the almost comical get-together of dolls and action figures chatting with one another, and if the occasionally dropped swear word was jarring, I ignored it.
How quickly that all changed. The cheery, laidback mood evaporated. A figure was strewn across the snow, and I knew something terrible was coming. A darker voice rasped out and like the toys on the screen, I reluctantly turned to face it. The dread grew as I watched the tiny toy gun waved around, and I was too afraid to finish it, this four minute loop of toys talking on a screen. I snapped off the headset but it was too late: I heard the pop of the gun anyways.
The work of art Winter in America is named after Gil Scott-Heron’s 1974 song. The winter here, however, represents the frozen hopes of African-Americans in America. The winter for African-Americans, you see, is not simply a season: it is their constant reality. Their bodies are not their own, but toys that can be manipulated and even dominated by others. Even their facial expressions are frozen and painted to their faces by someone else. Winter in America speaks, too, about our culture’s unsettling fascination with violence. These G.I Joe action figures, toys these artists played with as children, are designated “ages five and up” and each come equipped with its own gun. Although this specific situation was particular to the African-American community, perhaps it also addresses the larger American narrative.
If this video is alarming or scary, it should be. It was inspired by the brutal murder of Willis Thomas’s beloved cousin.
Image: Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America (still), 2006. Video (color, sound), 4:05 minute loop. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, Durham, NC, USA. Museum purchase with additional funds provided by William and Ruth True, 2009.2.1. Image courtesy of the artists and Jack Shainman Gallery, NY. ©Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi.