Interview with Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas has long illuminated the histories of racialized labor, Black cultural economies, politically crafted imagery, and their cumulative roads to revolution. His keen examinations of political gesture are steadily outgrowing their categorization as visual art and becoming increasingly discursive projects rooted in actualization. On the heels of his recent exhibition at Savannah College of Art and Design, Willis Thomas offers new avenues for politicizing creative work without the reduction that accompanies art-world trends.

Blind Memory (Indigo), 2017 Image courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design

Hank Willis Thomas. Blind Memory (Indigo), 2017; mixed-media installation. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: John McKinnon.

Ashley Stull Meyers: You just opened an exhibition at Savannah College of Art and Design. Can we talk about the installation Blind Memory and the site-specificity of it?

Hank Willis Thomas: The museum at SCAD has a very particular history. It was once a 19th-century railway depot. I did an installation in what were previously loading bays but are now vitrines. They call them “jewel boxes.” We filled them with four commodities that were popular during the era, that would have seen a lot of movement through that space—cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice—all of which would have been handled by slaves. The containers are twelve feet high, so it’s a large quantity.

ASM: What does it mean for the site to now be a museum? Do you think this history is something that SCAD will always grapple with in public? Or was the exhibition an opportunity to make transparent something that’s treated with hesitation?

HWT: That history will always be a part of the building. Not every artist chooses to make commentary on it when they’re invited, but for the public, that’s part of the lure of the place. A history of slavery is part of the lure of Savannah. So many people and things moved through here that it’s embedded, and I was eager to work with that.

Hank Willis Thomas. Blind Memory (Tobacco), 2017; mized-media installation. Image courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: John McKinnon.

Hank Willis Thomas. Blind Memory (Tobacco), 2017; mixed-media installation. Courtesy of the Savannah College of Art and Design. Photo: John McKinnon.

ASM:  You’ve expanded your work in the past year with the creation of the artist-run super PAC “For Freedoms.” As you formed a cohort and the idea started to seem more and more tangible, what thoughts were you having about the intersection of an artist practice with the sort of social project that’s not only bound in politics, but money?

HWT: In some part it’s about conversation and visual art, but the money aspect is the real driving force behind it. My collaborators and I recognize that the political system is a commercial industry, just like the fine-art world. Both trade in abstract ideas—to me it doesn’t feel like much of a leap. Part of our interest in creating For Freedoms was to acknowledge the commonalities between art and politics, but also make visible the bridges between the two. There’s a need for critical and creative thinking, which is not something that our president encourages. Art both encourages and demands it. We’re seeing what’s at stake in the political landscape, and we need spaces for critical language and deeper conversation. We want alternatives to empty catchphrases.

Hank Willis Thomas. Still of Collective Thinking, For Freedoms at Aperture, n.d. Courtesy of Social Media Team at Aperture Foundation

Hank Willis Thomas and collaborators. Still of Collective Thinking, For Freedoms at Aperture, n.d. Courtesy of Social Media Team at Aperture Foundation.

ASM: Many of your works recontextualize slogans from the civil rights era. What is attractive and important about pithy rallying cries, and the ways we hear and see them?

HWT: They often speak to our highest ideals and ambitions. They touch our hearts and manipulate us in a variety of ways. I think because they so quickly become cheap, overused, and outdated, they’re the perfect ideological fodder for the examination art tries to make.

ASM: Do you think political slogans have eerie ideological parallels to marketing jingles? Your work remixes consumerist slogans, too.

HWT: Oh yeah. Super PACs are political advertising agencies. They’re authorized to help create political speech and raise unlimited funds. It’s too much like what a commercial advertising firm does. You identify a target audience and figure out how to best get them to buy into an idea—it’s powerful, scary, and dangerous if we’re not looking.

Hank Willis Thomas. For Freedoms Laboratory at MoMA PS 1. Courtesy of MoMA PS 1.

Hank Willis Thomas and collaborators. For Freedoms Laboratory at MoMA PS 1. Courtesy of MoMA PS 1.

ASM: For Freedoms has some town halls coming up. What are those like in form and audience, compared to what we’ve seen during the presidential race? Do they play out any differently when guided by artists and creatives?

HWT: It’s a lot like the format of televised town halls. We’ve had about ten so far. They’re not oppositional like a debate, we gather people to talk about a variety of issues and develop some approaches. Sometimes the For Freedoms members lead them, and other times we invite locals from the community to lead. There isn’t much space in the typical fine-arts landscape to discuss politics. It’s starting to be a trend now, but that’s an afterthought.

ASM: As the town halls travel, do you find that the conversation is mostly global, national, or even regional to the context you’re visiting?

HWT: I’ve done them in New York, California, and Ohio. I definitely feel like the one in Cleveland took a localized turn, but Ohio is a swing state in a way that New York and California likely aren’t. I think people were hyper-aware of the diversity of opinions in that room. Because it’s not a major international hub, the conversations are more grounded about what they’re seeing and wanting in Ohio.

ASM: Is it important that the town halls travel to the South and Midwest?

HWT: Yes, for sure. It’s critical.

ASM: Are there any specific places you’re dedicated to seeing it go?

HWT: I just hope to keep the momentum going. For Freedoms has the potential to demonstrate how to become better artists and better political operators. All of us have a place in these conversations.

Hank Willis Thomas. Question Bridge, 2013 at the Missouri History Museum.

Hank Willis Thomas and Chris Johnson. Question Bridge, 2013; mixed-media installation at the Missouri History Museum.

ASM: On the topic of education, Question Bridge is increasingly active in its political discourse. Can you explain the strategy behind having conversations among Black men through a series of isolated questions, rather than face-to-face dialogue?

HWT: Well, Chris Johnson, my collaborator and former professor at California College of the Arts, is the originator of the Question Bridge methodology. We want people who have differing views to have an honest, clear back-and-forth. By mediating a conversation through the lens of a camera, we provide a level of security that lets people be more authentic because they don’t feel threatened. If I’m watching someone ask a question on videotape, it’s occurring in a different space–time continuum—you can’t interrupt a prerecorded question. And the freedom from the time constraints of real-time conversation allows you to be more thoughtful. Having healing or generative dialogue is critical for a project like this. 

ASM: What is your hope for how it will grow? Did you accomplish what you wanted to with this documentary set, or will you take on more topics and more communities?

HWT: Chris continues to do them. He’s since done one within the prison system, and another collaborator of ours has taken it to high-school students. I’m interested in people using it in situations that aren’t necessarily race- and gender-specific, but to have these conversations in instances where people who don’t already see themselves as part of a certain community may reevaluate that. There are so many communities that are frequently spoken about but rarely heard from. Question Bridge is an opportunity to address that kind of thing. Whether or not I’m a driving force, I hope the model continues to go places and have new lives. It’s a moving target.