Hank Willis Thomas is a contemporary African-American photo-conceptual artist working primarily with themes of race, identity, history, advertising and popular culture. His work goes beyond just making art, to examining and exposing deeper divides in our culture. Thomas sees cultural disconnects everywhere in day-to-day living particularly as it relates to race. He chooses to focus and exhibit this in his work.
He has exhibited throughout the U.S. and abroad including, the International Center of Photography, Galerie Michel Rein in Paris, Studio Museum in Harlem, Galerie Henrik Springmann in Berlin, and the Baltimore Museum of Art, among others. Thomas’ work is in numerous public collections including The Museum of Modern Art New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The High Museum of Art and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Based in New York, he is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery.
Here are excerpts of our conversation.
Tell me a bit about yourself. How did you first get into art and photography?
My mother is an artist, art historian and curator, I figured I might as well follow in her footsteps. (Deborah Willis)
In this picture: Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head, 2003
As a multi-medium artist, would you say there is a continuous relation between your works or are they independent of one another?
All of my work is about framing a context, and the various mediums are the best ways I feel I can get this point across. I like diversity.
Could you walk us through your process? How do you go from idea to conception?
I come up with an idea randomly; I think about it for a few years, I talk to people about materials randomly. I talk to more people. It’s more like alchemy than it is physics.
I talk to people about materials randomly. I talk to more people. It’s more like alchemy than it is physics.
In this picture: Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, 2011
You explore themes of race and the male body in visual culture – could you describe to us a little about what you have discovered?
I have discovered that people will believe what you tell them about themselves if you say it in factually and paint-pretty pictures to prove it.
You are surprising viewers with your work in the advertisement industry by ‘unearthing the insidious underbelly of marketing, and an industry determined to turn profit at any cost’- when did you first see this scheme and how are you trying to change it?
I first became aware of the potency of media images as a child who loved TV, movies, and commercials. I also grew up going to the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and I was always aware that there were other stories not being told. I also saw this movie called, “They Live with Roddy Piper”. . . I think it influenced a lot of artists especially Shepard Fairey.
What would you say is your favorite piece of your own work and why?
The best is yet to come…
In this picture: Hank Willis Thomas, Art Imitates Ads/ Imitates Life, 2013 (L) & Liberty, 2015 (R)
Photo Credit: Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Cover Photo: Hank Willis Thomas, Are you the Right Kind of Woman for it?