"All Things Being Equal…"

Vision 2020: Ella Ray

"There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface"

Ella Ray is an art historian who, as she puts it, “produces environments, partnerships, and texts that explore the relationship between the interpersonal, the public, and the in-between.” She has a B.A. in art history/critical theory from Portland State University, and works for the Portland Art Museum and Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. She is community partnership coordinator for Portland Art Museum’s Hank Willis Thomas exhibition All Things Being Equal, which closes Sunday, Jan. 12.


Ray is a multifaceted creative who uses Black studies and Queer studies to examine the ways Black popular culture and Black fine arts are defining contemporary culture. She earned her degree from Portland State University in Art History with a focus on Critical and Queer theory. As a historian and a community member, she is leading challenging conversations around race, historical erasure, and the fruits we all can gain through open institutional critique.   


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


What I’m going to do is go through a list of questions. Just whatever is on your mind, go ahead and let it flow. Give me whatever is in your crystal ball. Let’s start with your current professional background.

Currently, I work at the Portland Art Museum, formerly as a Kress interpretive fellow through the Kress Foundation. At the same time I am the community partnership coordinator for the Hank Willis Thomas All Things Being Equal exhibition. In addition to that, I work with PICA in their youth program, freelance consult for various arts organizations, and art adjacent things, and I write about Black theory, Black studies, and performance.

Art historian Ella Ray, using “Black studies and queer studies to think about the ways in which Black popular culture and Black fine arts are defining western culture.” Photo courtesy Ella Ray


You also have a background in art history. Can you tell me just a little bit about your education and what you went to school for?

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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.”

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