The concept of truth is crucial to artist Hank Willis Thomas, as his art is a political statement and a reflection of his beliefs about the world. In a recent conversation Brooke Jaffe for “ARTnews Live,” our ongoing IGTV series of interviews with a range of creatives, Willis Thomas quoted James Baldwin, “Artists are the legislators of possibility and the parliamentarians of hope,” to which Willis Thomas added, “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth, we’re civilization’s radical voice.”
Willis Thomas told Jaffe that he believes civil leaders should think more like creators and artist, especially when it comes to confronting social justice issues that have permeated throughout the United States for centuries, “because if we are dealing with centuries old problems in century old ways, if we really want to transcend we’re going to take action.”
One way that Willis Thomas aims to take action is through For Freedoms, an artist-led organization that he cofounded that works to reshape the conversations around politics by centering the voices of artists or putting “political discourse through fine art thinking,” as he put it. Willis Thomas also discussed with Jaffe how he believes 2020 is a pivotal point for activism and change. “We’re living in an inflection point in history that people will be speaking of for centuries or more,” he said, pointing to the group’s recent “2020 Awakening” initiative, which launched several artist projects across the country that intended to get out the vote for the 2020 election.
Willis Thomas also spoke about his first major retrospective, “All Things Being Equal,” which opened at the Cincinnati Art Museum in Ohio in September. The exhibition brought together more than 100 works in various media by the artist. With this exhibition, Willis Thomas said he hopes to address contentious issues in American history “and this quest for equality that we were founded on, and yet are also built in pursuit of.”
By way of example, the artist discussed at length his acclaimed “Branded/Unbranded” series, in which he took advertisements aimed at Black consumers and removed the ad’s text to reframe what might not be immediately apparent in its imagery. “When you start to look at advertising you start to realize that it’s really white men’s imagination about what Black people in general and what white women or anyone else would want in order for them to feel valuable in society,” Willis Thomas explained. “I was able to see how our notions of ourselves and our values were altered, manipulated, changed, evolved, through our relationship with advertising.”