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Hank Willis Thomas on His Text-Based Artwork

Hank Willis Thomas (Courtesy of Thomas, via Twitter)
Hank Willis Thomas (Courtesy of Thomas, via Twitter)

(The Root) — Hank Willis Thomas tackles aspects of race, identity, history and pop culture in his conceptual visual art and photographic work. The New Jersey native has had a breakout year, with an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City that featured Question Bridge: Black Males, a video installation co-created with artist Chris Johnson in collaboration with Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair. The project, which explored various representations of African-American male identity, was a major reason he made this year's The Root 100 list.


He has continued his collaborative work recently — this time with artist Sanford Biggers — for a work titled Baron of the Crossroads, which is garnering considerable buzz at this year's Art Basel Miami Beach. The photo features a male figure wearing a suit and hat with half of his body painted in white and the other half in black. In addition, Thomas' I Am a Man, a series of paintings based on the iconic civil rights-era protest signs, is holding court at the art festival.

The Root caught up with him in Florida, where he talked about the evolving art world, blacks' increasing interest in art and his plans for the near future.


The Root: What is special about being at Art Basel Miami Beach?

Hank Willis Thomas: What's special for me is just being able to see so much work by such a variety of artists and also to run into so many people that I actually don't normally get a chance to see, and some people that I've never met or never get to see. I think that you never know what wonderful things will come out of it.

TR: You have several pieces here, including I Am a Man, and they are flying off the walls and getting lots of buzz. What is the influence for your work?

HWT: I am always influenced by words and how the words we use and the words we choose can affect the way that we relate to ourselves and to others. All of these text pieces say I, us, you and me, so it's speaking directly to the viewer, actually using their voice. When you read it, you kind of embody it on a certain level psychologically.


TR: This year you are speaking at one of the Art Basel salons with curator Adam Shopkorn. With more African Americans coming every year and showing and being part of this, do you feel that there's change in the air?

HWT: I have been coming to Art Basel Miami Beach for 10 years; I don't know if any change in the art world is permanent. I do see and am excited to see more black people actually coming to the fair in general. That also comes in waves, but I think with Art Africa Miami, there are actually more and more African Americans embracing this aspect of the art world, which is exciting for me to witness. There are a core of people that have been coming forever, but I've seen more people that I don't know or don't recognize, as opposed to before, when I knew almost everybody.


TR: What is next for you?

HWT: I am doing a public art commission for the Birmingham airport. My project Question Bridge: Black Males is traveling a lot in 2013, to at least seven different venues. It's currently at the Project Row Houses in Houston, and I will be going to a lot of the stops on the tour.


Mostly I am just trying to figure out how to be really intentional about what I do rather than get caught up in the whirlwind of things. Living in New York, you always feel that you miss out on something if you are not out and doing stuff and meeting people and all that stuff.

Julie Walker is a New York-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter.

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