Hank Willis Thomas: How to unmake race

The Portland Art Museum has staged the first retrospective of Hank Willis Thomas, who addresses the complexity of race in America in "All Things Being Equal..."

The neon above the main entrance of the Portland Art Museum reads “LOVERULES.” Illuminated in different combinations, it reads both “love overules” and “love over rules.” The neon work, loaned by Jordan Schnitzer, sets the tone for Hank Willis Thomas’s show All Things Being Equal… that opened October 12 and will run through January 12, 2020. 

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Loverules, 2019. Neon. Courtesy of Jordan D. Schnitzer. © Hank Willis Thomas, photo courtesy of Portland Art Museum

Thomas is a photographer and conceptual artist whose work explores race, the language of advertising, and the power of images to shape culture and historical narrative. All Things Being Equal… is his first major retrospective. It brings together 15 years of the artist’s work and cements Thomas’s role as an artist who asks questions and poses answers about American history and the American present.

The show is a big moment for the Portland Art Museum and co-curators Julia Dolan and Sara Krajewski. To host this sort of retrospective for an artist of this status establishes the museum as an important venue for contemporary art. The show has been written up in the New York Times, Artnet, and the Observer, which stated “this show unequivocally places the Portland Art Museum in Oregon on the contemporary art map.” It is the culmination of several years of work for Dolan and Krajewski, who, in addition to curating the show, secured funding from multiple prestigious sources and co-authored a handsome catalog with Aperture. It is equally an opportunity for viewers to consider images and race in a different way.

Though his work deals with race and Thomas contends that there is no stronger power in the universe than Black joy, he is equally adamant that race is an invention or myth designed to justify inequality and to propel stereotypes into widespread assumptions about how people are. Thomas says of race, “it is only real because we were taught to make it real.”

Krajewski and Dolan have divided the exhibition into thematic rather than chronological sections, though the trajectory of the exhibition suggests some sense of progression in the artist’s career as well. The first section, Branded, displays mostly older work, and the gallery directly before exiting to the gift shop, Trouble the Water, showcases more recent work. Some works, such as the lenticular prints and neon sign in Pitch Blackness/Off Whiteness, are clearly contained, but others intermingle, and in general the divisions and their significance are not always clear. 

Branded displays the advertising and some of the sports-related works with which Thomas is most associated. The clever recasting of advertisements piques the viewer’s interest with a sense of “oh yes, I remember that” and then hits them with an “oh, but not like that,” with the familiar ads altered by historical fact. Absolut Power from 2003 fills the bottle silhouette from the vodka brand’s long-running marketing campaign with a diagram of a cargo hold of a slave ship. Afro-American Express of 2004 is a credit card using the green background and font of American Express but substituting the central image for an image of slaves and medallions of the famous “Am I not a man and a brother?” kneeling figure. Chained slaves serve as a border.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Absolut Power, 2003. Inkjet print on canvas, 53 × 34 inches. Collection of Williams College Museum of Art. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

Advertising features prominently in Thomas’s early works. He graduated with an MFA from California College of the Arts in 2004 and the early works in this show date from about the same time. Of the advertising works, Priceless #1 serves as a bridge between Branded and Remember Me and takes the form of the MasterCard “Priceless” campaign, listing a bunch of things that can be bought and one that can’t, and identifying the last intangible as “priceless.” Set at a funeral, the sparse ad listing includes a three-piece suit, new socks, and a gold chain but also a 9 mm pistol and a bullet for 60 cents. The intangible is “picking the perfect casket for your son.”

Though it uses the language of advertising, Priceless #1 is shaped by the artist’s immediate biography. The backdrop of the ad is a personal photograph taken at his cousin Songha Willis’s funeral after he was murdered over a gold chain in Philadelphia. Songha’s death in 2000 changed Thomas’s life and shaped his career and understanding of art: “The word ‘art’ means something different to me now. It offers a little bit of hope for answers, or at least poses better questions.” In the same space as Priceless #1 is the video Winter in America, in which Thomas and co-creator Kambui Olujimi use G.I. Joe action figures to restage the interactions and robbery that led to Songha’s death.

There are two other works in the show directly related to Songha’s murder, though the link is established by content rather than proximity. The landing of the main staircase houses Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake, 38 portraits of people directly affected by Songha’s death. In the sculpture court is 14,719 (2018) which consists of 16 banners with stars representing the 14,719 people who were shot and killed by someone else in the United States in 2019. The banners engulf the viewer. Standing in the center of the overlapping rings of banners, the banners make the enormity of the plague of gun violence in this country inescapable. Each star represents one life cut short, but that life connects to so many others. In Thomas’s words, “It is impossible to measure the magnitude and impact of this societal loss.”

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), 14,719 (2018), 2019. Embroidered fabric panels. © Hank Willis Thomas, photo courtesy of Portland Art Museum.

The section What Goes Without Saying includes works from Thomas’s Unbranded advertising series: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008 and A Century of White Women, 1915-2015. The Unbranded series followed Thomas’s earlier Branded work: Rather than altering ads, here Thomas strips away the advertising copy and product identification and leaves only the images of the people. The resulting enlargements of the ads then can focus on the ideas presented rather than the products on offer. “I realized that ads are never really about the product,” Thomas explains in the catalog: “It’s about what you get people to buy into through the language and the images and the stories you tell.”  Thomas reveals the way that images naturalize ideas about gender or race: the Black man with no shirt and plaid pants, the white mother baking muffins, the Black man with the cigar on a rattan throne flanked by two white women.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Slack Power/Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America 1968–2008, 1969/2006. Chromogenic print. 34 × 30 inches. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

It may be tempting to claim that the ubiquity of advertising or the rapid circulation of digital images has enabled this outsized capacity of images to shape cultural norms, but this is far from a modern phenomenon. In the fourth century BCE, Alexander the Great made sure that everyone in his empire knew he was destined to rule by distributing coins stamped with his (probably embellished) likeness and his fabulously flowing locks. People overwhelmingly think Jesus was white because artists in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance depicted him that way—against any reasonable understanding of geography and skin tone. 

Images have played an outsized role in the United States in the perpetuation of racial stereotypes. In his article “Creating an Image in Black: the Power of Abolition Pictures,” John Stauffer recounts that in the mid-19th century, the famous former slave and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, hailed photography as a tool in the fight in combating the belief in Black inferiority that characterized the antebellum era: “The vast majority of white artists degraded or dehumanized blacks when representing them. Most white Americans in the antebellum era believed that blacks were innately inferior, incapable of self-government, and thus unable to participate in civil society. They used pictures–though not photography–to show it.” Photography, in contrast, offered a more authentic or true representation.

Douglass lauded daguerreotypes because of their objectivity and ability to “penetrate the perceiver’s soul as well as his mind.” In retrospect this seems woefully optimistic, but photography was a new technology and even in our jaded regard for images, it is possible to understand Douglass’s viewpoint.

The belief that photography was able to eradicate racial distortion had lost some of its luster by the turn of the century, but W.E.B. DuBois maintained that photography could be instrumental in changing societal views on African Americans. In fact, the exhibit that DuBois put together for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, The American Negro Exhibit, included photographs of African Americans as well as data charts illustrating the Black experience. A selection of photos and data charts from DuBois’s groundbreaking exhibit is on view at the Portland Art Museum as part of Color Line: Black Excellence on the World Stage. This small show opened in June as a corollary to the Paris 1900 show but remains open through the end of the Thomas show. It is an illuminating pairing here as it offers viewers another opportunity to consider how images construct society.

Examining this multivalent power of pictures is one of the great strengths of Thomas’s work. While many of  the works in the second floor galleries center on advertising, the bulk of the works in the first floor galleries show Thomas’s engagement with the photographic archive and how it shapes history and historical memory. Thomas may have been predisposed to this field as his mother, Deborah Willis, is a photography curator, historian, and author of (among other things) a book titled Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present

Dolan and Krajewski have titled the larger section Trouble the Water, and it includes Thomas’s Punctum sculptures, his Retroreflectives series, and other works that use photographs as a point of departure. Trouble the Water is also the name of a 2013 work by Thomas that takes its title from a spiritual whose lyrics are thought by historians to be a code for people fleeing slavery via the Underground Railroad. Thomas’s composition arranges triangular fragments of a photograph from a 1949 Pentecostal baptism to create a quilt pattern. The quilt pattern further associates the work with the Underground Railroad—patterned quilts were used as a coded signal system to communicate during the flight northward. This work and the others in the second gallery use photographs in ways that extend their immediate point of reference.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Trouble the Water, 2013. Mounted digital c-prints and stained African Mahogany, 53 × 53 × 2 3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

The Punctum sculptures use philosopher Roland Barthes’s idea of the “punctum” of a photograph, the detail that “pierces” the viewer and continues to affect even after viewing. The sculptures isolate a component of an unseen photograph, leaving only the affecting detail. Amandla (2014) consists of a white-cuffed forearm and raised fist thrust out of a yellow metal door. The disembodied gesture conveys defiance, especially against the indication of  institutional power evoked by the paneled door. The title “amandla” means “power” in the Nguni languages of south Africa and associates the work with the struggle against apartheid.

Apartheid in South Africa is the inspiration for two other works from the Punctum series: Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passbook Must Burn!) from 2013 and Raise Up from 2014. Until 1986, Black South Africans had to carry identity passbooks that restricted their travel and job prospects. Burning these passbooks was a frequent occurence at anti-apartheid protests. In Die Dompas Moet Brand! bronze arms hold the detested booklets over a pile of ashes. Even without a familiarity with the South African passbook system, the sculpture is affecting.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passbook Must Burn!), 2013. Bronze and copper shim, dimensions variable. Installation view. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

Part of the “pierce” of both Amandla and Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passbook Must Burn!) is the life-sizedness of the gesturing limbs. In Amandla, the forearm/fist is made of silicon, which gives a realistic fleshiness against the cold metal door. The hands in Die Dompas are made of bronze but still capture the disdain with which the disembodied hands dangle the fluttering pages over the ashes. 

Raise Up, from 2014, demonstrates the ability for the meaning of images to evolve and change. The source for the sculpture is a 1967 photograph by Ernest Cole called Mine Recruitment. The photograph shows 13 Black men, all but one of whom are nude, standing against a wall with their arms raised above their heads. Taken during a group medical exam for employment in a mine, the photograph shows figures stripped of dignity and humanity. Raise Up reduces the number of figures to 10 and crops the figures so that the focus is the top of the mens’ heads and their arms raised overhead. 

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), Raise Up, 2014. Bronze, 112 1/5 × 9 4/5 × 4 inches. Private Collection. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

Thomas made this sculpture in early 2014 based on the 1967 photograph. The gesture of arms raised overhead gained urgent contemporary resonance in the summer of 2014 when 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. The raised-arms gesture, along with the phrase “Hands up, don’t shoot,” became a protest cry associated with Black Lives Matter. Thomas’s sculpture took on new meaning, so much so that now the connection to the original photograph and apartheid in South Africa is somehow secondary. The version of the sculpture in Portland is smaller than life-sized, and while it pierces the viewer, the full-sized version recently installed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is devastating. 

The relationship of the viewer to the image and its potency is equally at the heart of Thomas’s Retroreflectives series. Viewers are encouraged to take out their phones and shine their flash on the image. That reveals a salient detail and blurs out the rest of the composition. Upon flash exposure, Refusal (2018) highlights a single figure with his arms crossed in a crowd giving the Nazi salute from a 1936 photograph. Freedom for Soweto (2018) uses a photograph from 1976 and focuses attention on a boy with his arms raised and hands showing V or peace signs. 

At first blush, the phone manipulations seemed gimmicky to me, an excuse for people to use their phones in the museum—like bowler hats for selfies in front of a Magritte or something. But taken in conjunction with Thomas’s other work and the general direction of his line of inquiry, I’m inclined to say instead that it is another strategy for thinking through images—how they work, how people relate to images of history, and how the images create historical memory. 

The flash reveal is not the only strategy Thomas employs in his consideration of this line of inquiry. In Two Little Prisoners (2014), the figures of a crouching white police officer and two standing Black children are cropped out of a photograph and set against a large mirror. Viewers necessarily become part of the scene by positioning themselves to look. Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around (2015-2016) is a collage of photographs on smaller mirrored panels that mimic the reflective metal surface of early daguerreotypes and also incorporate the viewer’s reflection into the scene. In Wounded Knee (red and gold) (2018), Thomas obscures a 1973 photograph with undulating strokes of paint. 

All are ways of asking viewers to examine their own role in interpreting a photograph: by manipulating with a flash, by being incorporated in a mirror, or by peering through a distortion. Seeing is never passive or neutral, and neither is what we remember or how those memories build up upon one another to make history.

Although the artworks directly pulled from the photographic archive provide ample fodder for thought, my favorite departed from the source image a step further than the Retroreflectives works. I am, Amen is inspired by a photograph from 1968 taken by Ernest Withers at a sanitation workers strike in Memphis, Tennessee. The photo bears special significance in the history of the civil rights movement as Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis for the sanitation workers strike and was assassinated only days later. In the photo, a phalanx of Black striking workers hold identical signs emblazoned with the words “I am a man.” Thomas uses the framework of the original sign to make two rows of 10 signs each that read left to right as a poem that begins with “I am ⅗ a man” and ends with “I am. Amen.” The final statement is on a banner on the front of the museum along with the neon LOVERULES.

Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976), I Am. Amen., 2009. Liquitex on canvas, 25 1/4 × 19 × 1/4 × 2 1/4 inches each. Installation view. Collection of Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita State University. Image courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. © Hank Willis Thomas

Advertisements are not just about what is being sold, and images of the past aren’t about historical events. Instead, they reveal interpretations of historical events that shape the present and ideas about how the world operates: What pierces? What do you remember? What do you build a worldview on? Thomas’s statement about advertisement—“It’s about what you get people to buy into through the language and the images and the stories you tell”—rings just as true when applied to the photographic archive as it does to advertisements.

The Portland Art Museum has gone to great lengths to reach out to the Black community in Portland around the occasion of this exhibition. Ella Ray, the Kress Interpretive Fellow/Community Partnerships Coordinator, has created a robust schedule of programming and events including the opening night Critical Conversation. Partners throughout the exhibition include The Numberz (96.7 FM), Oregon Justice Resource Center, King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), Portland in Color, Don’t Shoot Portland, and We + Black. There is a Community Partners in Residence Space in the upper gallery that includes an exhibition and zine titled An Altar to Alter: A transcendent experience in Black Feminine Art and Healing that features photographs by Portland artist Intisar Abioto. 

On the occasion of a major exhibition that deals with race, Portland is eager to engage with the issues raised by Thomas’s work. The city wants to live up to its liberal and inclusive image and is cognizant of the many ways that ideal is thinly gilded onto an uglier past. Tickets to the opening night Critical Conversation in the sunken ballroom in the Mark Building sold out; there was overflow in the Whitsell Auditorium. People are turning out to see the exhibition in droves. There are big flashing letters on the front of the building! Love overrules! 

But our good intentions are not enough. In the Q&A section at the end of the Critical Conversation, in one of the last questions of the night someone asked the artist how he felt having his work shown in “the star of the white utopia” of Portland, Oregon. The person pointed out that the majority of the people in the audience were white and suggested that Black people were only welcome in the city “as long as we are artistic or entertaining.” The murmurs of assent confirmed this was not an outlying opinion.

Thomas responded that he didn’t believe in race, that one can’t know anything by looking at the color of someone’s skin and continued: “What I’m trying to struggle with is knowing that my ideas won’t save me but also that my anger won’t either. The only thing that will save me is my love for other people and my ability to see beyond all the things I’ve been trained to hate.” He finished that statement with “But I don’t live here,” opening up the possibility that unseeing race may be harder to do in Oregon than other places.

I do live here and was one of the many white faces in the audience. Racism is an abstraction for me but I am intimately familiar with the naive optimism of white liberals. We want to believe that we couldn’t possibly be racist, which was a problem of the past or in other less enlightened places. We want to believe the fact that this exhibition is here and so well attended exonerates previous bias in the museum or us for benefitting from white privilege. It’s the same hope that led us to claim that Obama’s 2008 election heralded a post-racial society. 

Even in the face of events like Ferguson in 2014, we shared the photo taken in Portland of Devonte Hart embracing Sgt. Bret Barnum. That photo, first published by OregonLive, of a Black child hugging a white police officer was shared on Facebook 440,000 times. It tapped into our dream that race problems have a fix. If we all just hugged each other more, it would be fine. But the irony of that viral photograph is that while it seemed one thing in the moment and it was shared as what we wanted it to be, reality proved otherwise. Institutional racism is a fact and cannot be fixed by a hug or a Black Lives Matter yard sign. Good intentions don’t erase our naïveté.

Race is a fiction, but that fiction has been propagated and circulated and layered upon in events and memories in this country for so long that it is a reality. Thomas’s work asks us to consider the mechanisms that conspired to make race so we can better understand how to unmake it in the future. 

The title of the show, All Things Being Equal… ends with an ellipsis signaling that it is the beginning of a statement, something must follow for the thought to be complete. It is as appropriate for a mid-career retrospective as it is for the Portland Art Museum or for Portlanders. The conversation has been opened but the conclusion remains unknown.

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