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Interview with the Artist: Hank Willis Thomas

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Interview with the Artist: Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas uses photography, video, the web, and installations to examine how history and culture are framed, who is doing the framing, and how these factors affect our views of society. One of the most thoughtful, provocative young American artists of our time, Thomas (born 1976) has already had an impressive decade-long career that includes a 2008 monograph, a fellowship from the Tribeca Film Institute, and exhibitions and acquisitions at prestigious American, European, and African museums and galleries.

This exhibition—the artist’s largest museum show to date and his first in northeast Ohio—was inspired by the museum’s 2012 acquisition of six of his works, all of which are on view simultaneously at the Cleveland Museum of Art through Sunday, March 9, 2014 and at the Transformer Station through Saturday, March 8, 2014. Now in its final days, we caught up with Hank Willis Thomas to talk about some of the works in the show.

  

The museum’s photography gallery features all 82 works of Thomas’s first major series, Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America, 1968–2008. By subtracting all the branding information from advertising images appropriated from four decades of Ebony magazine, Thomas hopes to encourage viewers “to think more deeply about how advertising reinforces generalizations surrounding race, gender, and cultural identity.” Here, hediscusses the Your Skin Has the Power to Protect You work featured at Transformer Station.

 

The Transformer Station hosts a five-screen video installation, Question Bridge: Black Males. This collaborative project by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair invites viewers to witness an intimate dialogue between black men who come from a wide range of geographic, economic, generational, educational, and social backgrounds. Through questions and answers that are pointed, poignant, humorous, painful, and revealing, these men begin to redefine black male identity in America. During the run of the exhibition, In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth), also pops up around town. Created by Ryan Alexiev, Jim Ricks, and Thomas, it is a gigantic inflatable cartoon speech bubble with the word TRUTH on the side. It has toured Ireland and various U.S. cities, and arrived in Cleveland directly from Afghanistan, where it traveled around the country seeking the truth. Viewers are invited to enter a booth built into the bubble and complete the statement, "The truth is. . . . " before a video camera. The resulting videos may end up on the project's web site. You can catch the Truth Booth next on March 5 at the Tri-C Metro Campus and March 6 at Sisters of Charity, Central Promise Neighborhood. Learn more about the projects in the video above.

 

Also on view are selections from several of Thomas’s past series, including Branded and Strange Fruit, plus a selection of new works, and an emotionally powerful video by Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America. The latter work employs stop-action animation and G.I. Joe figures to act out the shooting death of Thomas’s cousin during a robbery. The artists, who played with similar toys themselves, have come to believe that the toys breed “a culture of violent thoughts for young boys who are invited to author violent scenarios before they can even read.” In this clip, Thomas discusses Scarred Chest from the Branded series.

See Hank Willis Thomas' exhibitions before they're gone at the Cleveland Museum of Art (before March 9) and Transformer Station (March 8)!