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Artist Hank Willis Thomas Criticizes What We Often Hold Dear

Artist Hank Willis Thomas Criticizes What We Often Hold Dear

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Hank Willis Thomas’ work examines art, politics, commerce and justice

An exhibit by contemporary artist Hank Willis Thomas is being shown throughout the country just when the work’s powerful message is most needed.

The exhibit, Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…, was shown in Portland, Oregon; then Bentonville, Arkansas; and is now headed to the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio. The show, scheduled for Sept. 4-Nov. 8, is the first comprehensive mid-career survey of the work of this influential artist.

Hank Willis Thomas was born in Plainfield, New Jersey. He’s known for his work as a conceptual artist, working primarily with themes related to identity, history, and popular culture. His most recent exhibition encompasses 20 years of his career.

Hank Willis Thomas
Branded Head by Hank Willis Thomas [Image courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum]

During those years, he explored how the visual languages of popular culture, advertising and media shape society and individual perspective, structuring and trading upon notions of race and gender. Through photography, sculpture, video and collaborative projects, Thomas invites viewers to examine the role of everyday imagery in perpetuating ideas and to become active participants in the process of dismantling bias.

All Things Being Equal… was organized by the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. It contains more than 90 works, including Thomas’ early photographic series, sculptures and multi-media works that reinterpret the photographic record of historic 20th century events. It also includes monumental textile works that Thomas made from reclaimed prison uniforms and athletic jerseys. The works demonstrate the artist’s ongoing critical examination of advertising and pop culture as it relates to social justice.

Hank Willis Thomas
“I Am A Man” by Hank Willis Thomas [Image courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum]

Art as a megaphone

Mirroring much of Thomas’ work, the exhibit asks important questions. In a moment of pandemic and nationwide protest against systemic racism, how can we see and challenge the inequality woven into our social fabric? What more can we learn as a community about the power of art to heal and connect?

“Hank Willis Thomas’s work guides us to the meeting points of art, politics, commerce and justice while affirming human joy and the role of art in grasping our shared humanity,” says Nathaniel Stein, Associate Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum. “There is no more important artist for us to pay attention to today, and none with whom the museum and our community partners could be more honored to grapple with history, rise to the present, and imagine a possible future. Living through 2020 with this project has been a profound experience. I hope people of Greater Cincinnati will join museum staff and our community partners in giving Thomas’ work its fullest meaning for here—for now and for what comes next.”

Hank Willis Thomas
“Strange Fruit” by Hank Willis Thomas [Image courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum]

A lifetime of critical work

Thomas has been challenging politics, the media, and justice for much of his career. His work has been exhibited internationally and is part of the collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., among other impressive museums. Thomas, 43, won the Guggenheim Fellowship award in 2008. He has been an instructor in the MFA program at Yale University and Maryland Institute College of Art and is a member of the Public Design Commission for the City of New York. He was recently chosen to design Boston’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King Memorial in conjunction with MASS Design Group.

Hank Willis Thomas
“Public Enemy” by Hank Willis Thomas [Image courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum]

In 2016, Thomas co-founded the artist-led collective For Freedoms. The organization uses art to promote civic engagement and enrich public political discourse. For Freedoms is inspired by American artist Norman Rockwell’s paintings of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms (1941) —freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In 2018, For Freedoms launched the 50 State Initiative: the largest creative collaboration in U.S. history.

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A community’s voice

In Cincinnati, the All Things Being Equal… exhibit was realized in collaboration with a Community Committee. The committee was made up of volunteer thinkers, activists and artists recruited locally. The Community Committee has illuminated the artwork anew with their voices and views, which visitors will encounter both in the gallery and in public engagement programs.

Hank Willis Thomas
“Amandla” by Hank Willis Thomas [Image courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum]

The museum and committee are reimagining a collection of public programs. Each explores pressing questions raised by the exhibition. Learn more about the digital, on-site and off-site programming at cincinnatiartmuseum.org/hankwillisthomas.

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