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Hank Willis Thomas: Artists Should Work in Society’s Subconscious

About this talk

Hank Willis Thomas has made it his mission to “not make sense out of things we think make sense,” challenging our perceptions of identity, history, and symbols. In this talk, Thomas shares what he’s learned from creating his provocative body of work, including the repurposing of iconic brand imagery as a commentary on race and class, particularly in regard to African-American males.

Among the work he presents is the Truth Booth, an inflatable confession booth that he toured around the world asking locals to complete the sentence “The truth is…” and Question Bridge, where African-American men of all ages and walks of life ask and answer each other’s questions via online video. “Whoever is holding the frame affects what we see,” says Thomas. “It can never actually tell the whole truth. There are more things happening outside of the frame of a camera than within it.”

Hank Willis Thomas, Conceptual Artist

Hank Willis Thomas is a photo conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to identity, history and popular culture. He received a BFA in Photography and Africana studies from New York University and his MFA/MA in Photography and Visual Criticism from the California College of Arts. Thomas’ monograph, Pitch Blackness, was published by Aperture in 2008. He has exhibited throughout the U.S. and abroad including, Galerie Anne De Villepoix in Paris, Annarumma 404 in Milan, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, among others. Thomas’ work is in numerous public collections including The Museum of Modern Art New York, The Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Brooklyn Museum, The High Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.

His collaborative projects have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and installed publicly at the Oakland International Airport, The Birmingham International Airport, The Oakland Museum of California and the University of California, San Francisco.

Full Transcript

This talk is supposed to be about creative values. And I didn’t really ever think about my own creative values until, well, until right before [INAUDIBLE] was talking. He said a few things, so I wrote mine down. One of them, I’ve said several times, but I didn’t realize it was one of my values. I was saying, if you want to be an artist, don’t be a realist. Don’t be realistic. Because the chances that you’ll be successful aren’t real. The second is, the role of the artist, I’ve learned, through this artist Richard Long, is to work in a society’s subconscious. Our job is to make sense out of things, or actually to make sense out of things that don’t make sense, or to not make sense out of things that we think make sense.

In a society that everything is functional, actually, becomes dead. And so maybe it’s somebody’s job to actually think about just the color blue for the sake of it, because that’s what our humanity is about. And then I realized my job is to really basically make my dreams come true every day. And sometimes I have trouble distinguishing my dreams from my nightmares. But that’s the nature of working as an artist. And then I really see myself as feeling the need to think creatively about things that I already know. And so I really think about, I’ve always really been interested in framing context as I mentioned. And when I think about the frame of a photograph, I was always fascinated with how whoever’s holding the frame affects what we see. Basically, every photograph we know is manipulated, because it’s a narrow split second in time of a narrow point of focus. And it can never actually tell the truth. And usually there’s more things happening outside of the frame of a camera than actually within it. And so I’ve always been interested in how my own subjectivity limits my ability to actually see what’s really happening. And thinking about how that relates to my own identity as an African-American, as an artist, I was reading a book called “Everything But the Burden.” And there was a quote by Carl Hancock-Rux in it. He says, “There is something called black in America. There’s something called white in America. And I know them when I see them, but I will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them, because they’re not real, even though they have a very real place in my daily way of seeing, a fundamental relationship to my ever-evolving understanding of history, and a critical place in my relationship to humanity.” I sometimes say if I could ever plagiarize an artist’s statement, this would be it. And I basically just did. How many people know who this is? Or what do you think this guy did? At some point, in the 20th century, this was the most celebrated African-American person in the country. Actually, he was the first African-American to get a leading role on Broadway. This is how he performed his blackness. And I was really fascinated with– this is his Burt Williams– I was really fascinated with how he chose to describe and to show himself when he was behind stage and the way that America celebrated him. And I really started to really think about what is authenticity when we think about race, identity. And I started to think about– I sometimes say history doesn’t laugh, in that we think about history, there’s these grand narratives we’ve been told about, this people and this happened and this happened. But really, in reality, there are several histories happening all at once. And what we choose to remember is actually almost as important– not as important– as what we choose to forget. And I saw this actually image I framed at one point in a postcard. It was just a postcard in an old museum. And it was a picture of an African-American man wearing a World War I soldier’s had, his Sunday best, and holding a rifle, which was surprising to me because it’s not the kind of image I’ve seen of African-Americans in that period of time. And on the back, all that was written was this, “Remember me.” And I thought, this is, like, a message to the future. The fact that– whoever took this photograph realized how important actually this image could be to the future. And so I started really thinking about what other kind of things have changed? So does anybody know who these guys are? This was the status quo throughout most of my life. There was, like, a black man who was the king of the ring and there was a white guy who was king of everything else. And then, what miraculously happened is this amazing flipping of the script, which is so– One thing, we think about all the time, we talk about. There’s another thing that happened that really complicates our whole notion of who has the power and who has the role to do what. And how many of us have paid attention to heavyweight boxing in the past 10 years? Really, that’s what I find so fascinating. And then also, how I think of Barack Obama’s campaign as basically the second most successful advertising campaign of all time. The fact that he could actually take a word like “hope” and make it his is pretty fascinating. And thinking about advertising campaigns, I’ve really always been interested in the seductiveness of advertising. Because basically, advertising is a reflection of our hopes and dreams. And there’s so much embedded in it that is kind of overlooked. So that was an image that we know is Michael Jordan. And there was an essay by Stanley Crouch. And he said, “In 1960, if white girls in the suburbs had posters of a Negro that dark on the wall, there would have been hell to pay. That kind of racial paranoia is not true in the country now. Today you have girls who are Michael Jordan fanatics and their parents don’t care.” And I found that fascinating, thinking about this person was born in the segregated South, the descendants of slaves, and for some reason was able to transcend race, gender and international boundaries through his ability to put a ball through a hoop. But I was wondering how someone of his nature would have been treated at a different period of time. And so I really started to think about how I could use this language of advertising to talk about things that advertising isn’t supposed to talk about. I think about logos as our generation’s hieroglyphs, in a sense, in thinking about the way that messages are embedded in them, and all the different things that we could actually do to create our own new meaning through combining these logos to talk about things that aren’t meant to be commodified. And so for instance, people– I thought about this amazing Absolut campaign that I always loved and thought about the construction of a quote, unquote, “black identity.” I thought, we’re thinking of Africa being this diverse continent with hundreds of millions of people and speaking thousands of languages and thousands of cultures. And the idea of, if someone chose to kidnap these people, package them into ships, send them halfway across the world, and tell them they’re all the same– to me, that’s absolute power, the fact that this whole notion of race– and I think about racism was actually successful advertising campaign. Because to me, I always say the craziest thing about blackness is that black people didn’t create it. The Europeans, with a commercial interest in dehumanizing us, created “black people.” Has anybody noticed my skin is brown? But I started thinking about how slaves were branded as a sign of ownership and how today, so many of us, including me, brand ourselves. And what does that say about our relationship to our own individual identity, compared to a collective notion of identity that’s somewhat arbitrarily constructed. And thinking about how sometimes history repeats itself through the things that we celebrate. And also, where do African-Americans come from? This is a piece I created called “A Place to Call Home.” So all of my work, in a sense, is really about framing and context. It’s also an investigation of the hybridity that exists within me. And I’m constantly fascinated with how each of us is actually diverse within ourselves, and how so many of us are actually reduced to any number of narrow perspectives. And sometimes those ways in which we are viewed have consequences. But I was really trying to deal with this notion of black male identity and how it related to myself, because so much of the things that have been said or talked about related to black men in America always didn’t sit right with me. And I realized, how could I actually get a consensus about what black men do? And so I had a professor named Chris Johnson. And he created this project along with me called “Question Bridge– Black Males,” which is– just take a look. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] Do you want to get out of the situation that you’re in? What is the reluctance for taking responsibility for improving our communities? Are your children better or worse off as a result of your involvement? Why wouldn’t you be happy with your son being gay? Why are you so violent? Why do you have that “take” mentality? Why are you afraid of being intelligent? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? What I want to know is, why. I believe that we’ve incorporated a lot of things that are unhealthy to us. We’re supposed to be tough. I can’t let them see no type of sucker. Along with various other stereotypes. The level of mentorship in our community is not as strong as it possibly could be. When I came up, crack was a quick way for a black man to make a million dollars. Sometimes I think because we think we’re black, we’re some other kind of human beings. But we’re just like most other human beings. Why didn’t you all leave us the blueprint? We did leave you a blueprint. We just didn’t tell you where it was. That’s something that we dropped the ball on. What do you fear? That something will harm my children. I fear success. Am I the only one who has probably eaten chicken, watermelon, and bananas in front of white people? That nigger’s crazy. That word– we have to stop using it. I think black people can say “nigger” any time they want. How dare you? What right do you have to use this word? A lot of nigger questions for the rapper. What is common to all of us that we can say makes us who we are? This is the easiest question in the world to answer. The thing that we have in common is that we are male and we are black. [END PLAYBACK] So basically, Chris, myself, [INAUDIBLE], and [INAUDIBLE] really went on this journey to ask African-American men to ask and answer each other’s questions. Because we realized that there is actually more diversity within any demographic as there is outside of it. And the process was pretty simple. We would just go to African-American men. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] My question to a black man in America or anywhere else is, what is common to all of us that we can say makes us who we are? [END PLAYBACK] We’d asked them to ask a question like that. And then we’d take that question to someone else and show it to them and then they would respond. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] Our commonality in our history. But I think our beauty as black people is also in our diversity. [END PLAYBACK] And first we thought we’d be doing a documentary project where we’d take the best questions and the best answers. What we actually wound up having is very different questions. We had over 150 different questions with over 160 participants. And then we had different answers to every question. And we went around the country and we collected these question and answers. And I was surprised as it that even myself didn’t really understand what black men cared about, what were African-American men’s values. So we actually created what’s now a trans media project, which is a video art installation that’s a three-hour, five-channel video installation that’s exhibited in over 30 museums and galleries across the country. And I really have been interested in this idea of making art by committee. And that rather than it just being me saying what I think, the idea of actually sharing and learning through this process. And so we just launched our website, which is called, where basically self-identified African-American men can actually log on and ask and answer each other’s questions. And those who don’t identify as African-American men can actually function almost as flies on the wall in this conversation that really isn’t about race or gender or identity. It’s really about people and what happens when people are put into groups, how they relate to the notion of the group itself, and how they relate to each other. And basically what’s so fascinating is that you can tag yourself in any number of ways. And you can search this archive of questions and answers in conversation that really I hope will show that this, really, beauty of diversity exists within each of us. And so all of the projects I’ve been really focusing on of late are this really fascinating experience of elevating the voices of everyday people, in getting them invested in actually telling the stories and learning from them. So often we look at as artists and art as being a process where we put out something for the world to consume. And I’m really interested in actually creating platforms for the world to offer wisdom that I can learn from. So another collaborative project I’ve done more recently is called “The Truth Booth.” And my collaborators and I actually thought that it would be fascinating to make kind of like a modern day confession booth. So you walk into the Truth Booth and there’s a touch screen that says, “Everyone has their version of the truth. What’s yours? Speak for the next two minutes, starting with ‘the truth is’.” And what’s so fascinating is there’s one thing that no one can refute about us is what we believe is true. And all of our truths are valid. And this kind of democracy– this is us in Ireland. It was a pretty fascinating journey, with some really creative ways of complementing the project. And what was really fascinating actually starting the project in Ireland is some of the things that people offered. This is one example. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] The truth is not to be discovered because it was there before we were born. It hid itself when we were born and it generally comes out again once we are dead. I’m nearly dead, so the truth will shortly emerge. I believe the truth is a struggle to find what it really is. The truth is really small. It’s very hard to see. But if you look really, really close, you will find the truth. And it’s all around. Thank you. It is true that I’ve have got a girlfriend that is named [INAUDIBLE]. And it is true that my favorite animal is a dolphin. OK? And that’s all I wanted to say. The truth is, Molly, you are a bitch. The truth is that I want to be an actor, a dancer, singer. But I’m not sure how to get into the business. I’ve joined Trading Faces. And I’ve joined the agency of [INAUDIBLE], but I’m not sure if I’m going to get into the– well, I am in the agency, but I’m not sure if I’m going to get anything out of it. I just really want to be an actress, especially or maybe a beautician a singer I may be. Or maybe a dancer, but I’m not sure how to get in. That’s the truth. This was an absolutely clean production. I want to say hello to Melody, because she’s my little doggie, and all my other pets, and my parents. Peace out. The truth, I believe, is LEGOs. LEGOs brings you think small, but believe big. Lego is in all our minds. So the truth is very, very small. But think big. [INAUDIBLE] [END PLAYBACK] 12-year-old just rocked my mind. And who can actually refute that? So we were actually able to take the Truth Booth to a number of places, even though we’re still just beginning the project, and have had actually nearly This is at a presidential debate, were we know this is actually kind of the source of the truth forums in America. And we’ve taken it recently to the Cleveland Museum. But last summer, Ryan and Jim took it to Afghanistan, who are my collaborators, Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks. And there were so many amazing things that came out of that. And here’s just a few. [VIDEO PLAYBACK] [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] [END PLAYBACK] And there’s so many more of these that were collected. And so fascinating just to see how, given the opportunity to actually share our wisdom, we all actually are not only beautiful, but actually– for instance with this project, but also with “Question Bridge,” one of the things I neglected to say is especially with “Question Bridge,” what I love about it is I feel like it’s the first art/social science project where both the researchers and the experts are the participants of the project. So it’s this closed circle, where it’s not an expert coming from outside saying, these are these people. These are these values. And really, I think, what this 21st century economy of generosity and crowdsourcing is about is about us actually all using our voices.

And thinking about that, thinking about just this picture, which was taken by a photographer in Memphis, Tennessee named Ernest Withers, 1968, during the sanitation workers’ march, which was just 8 years before I was born. And I found it fascinating that it was necessary in this country for people to stand in a group and collectively affirm their humanity. Because the term that I grew up with wasn’t “I am a man.” It was “I am THE man.” And I thought it was fascinating to think that going from the civil rights movement, where was this other kind of collective statement, now it’s all about the me, and the mini-me’s within us. And so I created a series of paintings thinking of all the different riffs I could base off of that political poster. And I always loved to read the last line as a poem, where it says, “I’m the man, who’s the man, you the man. What a man. I am man. I am human. I am many. I am, am I. I am, I am, I am a man.” Because I ultimately realized that rather than trying to validate myself based off of anyone else’s system of value, maybe my greatest gift is my consciousness. And so that’s kind of my mantra, which I hope to share with you and I hope I did it. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

Comments (4)
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  • Chuck Dymer

    Stunningly creative. Thank you Mr. Thomas.

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  • Vitor Bean

    Wow !!! amazing Projects

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