4 Questions With Artist Hank Willis Thomas

The "30 Americans" artist explains the juxtaposition of slave and sports imagery in his work.

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Hank Willis Thomas (Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu)

Hank Willis Thomas, whose work is featured not only at the Corcoran Gallery of Art  in its "30 Americans" show but also in his own exhibition, "Strange Fruit," chatted recently with The Root about the sports symbolism in his work, whether or not "30 Americans" is important in the art world and the piece that best represents him as an artist.

The Root: There are sports and race themes in your work. Are you a sports fan?

Hank Willis Thomas: I'm a life fan. I mean, I'm not into following a specific team or following a specific sport. If there's a game on, I'll watch it. But I'm more concerned with the symbolism, with the iconography of athletes in sports.

TR: Why is an exhibit like "30 Americans" important in the art world?

HWT: The simple answer is because it's never been done before. I'd say every show's important. Because you never know what's going to be relevant in the future. It could be, like, this rinky-dinky show that no one liked, but one person could have gone and been inspired by it. It's dangerous to talk about "important." We never know.

TR: What's the piece that best represents you as an artist?

HWT: The piece that's become my most iconic -- if I'm allowed to say that -- is called the Branded Head -- it's the image with the Nike swoosh. And to me it's about how slaves were branded as a sign of ownership, and today we live in a state of branded consciousness. Very often we brand our own selves as far as the clothes we wear, the mentalities we have about this way in which we navigate our world through ideas that are corporate generated.

TR: Are there any other artists in this exhibit that have directly influenced you or inspired you in any way?

HWT: I'd say all of them. I've known Wangechi Mutu since undergrad. And I always cite her as a kind of influence or icon that I'm inspired by. Kara Walker, but also Kihende [Wiley] is a genius. Jeff Sonhouse ... I could go on. I'm just happy to be in their company.

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