Every single one of Hank Willis Thomas’ searing artworks on view now at the Cincinnati Art Museum has a “ripped from the headlines” feel. Thomas examines, explores, interrogates and lays bare the Black experience in America with the varying subtlety of a scalpel and a sledgehammer.
Every piece seems to directly address one or more of the tragedies experienced throughout 2020 by America’s Black community. Take your pick from the recent police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Damien Daniels to the recent police shootings of Willie Henley and Jacob Blake, the modern day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery, the disproportionate burden of Covid-19 deaths, the widening wealth gap, a resurgence in overt, public expressions of white supremacy or a throwback, race-baiting president sent from the Jim Crow-era.
This artwork, however, wasn’t inspired by 2020.
These pieces weren’t created in 2020.
Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… is a retrospective. The almost 100 works on display were created over the past 20 years. Thomas’ work reminds us that while millions of new advocates to the equal rights movement have been made in 2020, the traumas which have moved contemporary converts to action are nothing new to those suffering them directly.
The same traumas have been taking place for decades. Generations. Centuries.
“Hank Willis Thomas asks us to see and challenge systems of inequality that are woven into the fabric of contemporary life; he asks us to participate and understand that our participation in a gallery is continuous with participation in the world,” Nathaniel Stein, Associate Curator of Photography at the Cincinnati Art Museum, told Forbes.com. “His work invites us to look at history, be unafraid of the lessons it holds for our future, and–paraphrasing him–listen for the parts of each of us that are in others.”
This show represents the first comprehensive mid-career survey of Thomas’ work. Included are early photographic series, sculptures and multi-media works reinterpreting the photographic record of historic twentieth-century events, monumental textile works constructed from reclaimed prison uniforms and athletic jerseys, interactive video installations and public art projects. Twenty years of artistry are encompassed during which Thomas has explored how the visual languages of popular culture, advertising and media shape society and individual perspective, structuring and trading upon notions of race and gender.
“Thomas’s work asks us to see and be critical about the roles we play as participants in systems that support inequality, yet it also tells us that the reason for this hard examination is that we have the power to build fuller life together,” Stein said.
Thomas’ work requires it. You won’t find still lifes of peonies or bucolic landscapes here.
Absolut Power recreates the horrors of slave ships inside an Absolute Vodka bottle. The Cotton Bowl, Strange Fruit, Futbol and Chain, Branded Head, Guernica and others expose stomach-churning through lines connecting slavery to the prevalence of African-Americans in sports. Public Enemy (Black and Gold) lives with onlookers long after it has been experienced.
Thomas’ art is a workout.
It’s also necessary.
Necessary considering how millions of Americans continue to deny that Black lives matter. Necessary where a legal system from policing to prosecution and incarceration continues to disadvantage Black people when compared to whites. Necessary when Americans across the country feel it compelled to take to the streets and protest for equality, and necessary where state governors vow to enact harsher punishments for those protestors while completely failing to address the conditions which drove them to the streets.
But joy can also be found in Thomas’ work if you know where to look.
“One of the artworks that says this to me, personally, most movingly is I Am. Amen, a 20-panel painting that moves us through historical and personal permutations of the phrase ‘I am a man,’” Stein said. “That proclamation, taken from signs held aloft by marchers in the 1968 Memphis Sanitation Workers strike, shouldn’t be necessary, but it was and is, the last panel of Thomas’s artwork changes the phrase to ‘I Am. Amen.,’ a profound–and joyful—affirmation of existence and individual consciousness in a world that sometimes wants to extinguish both.”
This exhibition has been realized in collaboration with a Community Committee. Composed of volunteer thinkers, activists and artists recruited locally, the Community Committee has illuminated the artwork anew with their voices and views, which visitors will encounter both in the gallery and in public engagement programs. This initiative responds to a common complaint aimed at art museums, where even when displaying the work of minority artists, that work is most often curated by a white curator, for a white museum director and ends up consciously or unconsciously programmed to white audiences.
“We approached the project this way because the artist’s work calls us to, and out of personal and professional conviction among the project team to push the field away from established, sometimes exclusionary methods,” Stein said.
In response to a summer of Covid-19 deaths and Black Lives Matter activism, the museum and committee are reimagining a collection of public programs exploring pressing questions raised by the exhibition while following evolving public health and safety guidelines. Details about digital, on-site and off-site programming will be posted to the musuem’s website throughout the fall.
“The pandemic and the Movement for Black Lives both focused acute attention on the question of what is considered essential in our society, who gets to define and speak loudest about that question, and in what forums,” Stein said. “We reoriented our thinking around what we could contribute to pressing needs regarding trauma and healing; political process and civic discourse; and envisioning the future. With our community partners, we devised programs that address each of these areas.”
What has the result been?
“I’ve seen visitors break out into applause, I’ve seen them feel angry, I’ve seen people feel heard and represented, I’ve seen them cry,” Stein said. “I see visitors telling their circles it is necessary to come to the exhibition; I see them truly engage—which is the most important thing.”
Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… can be seen at the Cincinnati Art Museum through November 8.