Artist Hank Willis Thomas Shines Spotlight on the Power of Protest

Color Creatives is an original video series for The Root.

America’s No. 1 protest artist? Forget Banksy—meet Hank Willis Thomas. The African-American conceptual artist challenges ideas and oppression through themes of pop culture. He’s gained a huge following in the art and celebrity community, among them art lover Swizz Beats. Whether it’s photography, sculptures, installations or video, the messages are deeper than they appear on the surface.

Rise Up, 2014
Photo: Hank Willis Thomas & Jack Shainman Gallery

“All art is political. A mistake that we make is thinking that just because it doesn’t look political that it isn’t,” Thomas says. “The role of art is to actually challenge us to think differently about who we are and our role in our society. And if the questions are too easy, the answers are too easy, and therefore we run the risk of not really kind of evolving.”

“What happened on that day really set me on a path (red and blue),” Hank Willis Thomas, 2018. Left image without flash, right with flash.
Photo: Hank Williams & Jack Shainman Gallery

His most recent exhibit, “What We Ask is Simple,” is focused on 20th-century protest movements and the everyday people who make up those movements, many of whom never get the spotlight. But how Thomas shines that light is even more interesting. Images might appear one way to the naked eye but change when light is added or angles change.

A man takes a selfie with Hank Willis Thomas’ All Power to All People sculpture in view of a statue of former Philadelphia Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia on Sept. 14, 2017.
Photo: AP Images

The Root spoke with Thomas about his latest exhibit as well as others, including the controversial Afro-pick sculpture in Philadelphia. Watch the full video above.

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