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.
“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.”
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.
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.