Hank Willis Thomas Unabridged: Part IIJuxtapoz // Tuesday, 23 Feb 2010
Hank Willis Thomas
Interview by Katie Zuppann
Portraits of Hank by Randy Dodson
Artwork Images courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery
If looking at a Hank Willis Thomas (Juxtapoz #110) piece of work makes you uncomfortable, then mission accomplished. He has stripped the skin off an imperfect America by swiftly dealing a blow to viewers’ hearts and minds. Make no mistake, Hank has a point, and he will make sure you listen up.
Here we continue our talk with featured artist Hank Willis Thomas. In this portion, Hank gets political and speaks about Barack Obama and the magic of marketing.
II. Getting Political
Katie Zuppann: You have talked a lot on Barack Obama and his blackness. Do you see the election of Barack Obama informing your future work?
Hank Willis Thomas: I had a show where the work focused on trying to figure out what the world was going to be like before and after the 2008 election. I felt like if John McCain won it would be a lot easier for me; I could just do the same old thing. With Barack Obama’s election, although no problems are solved, you can’t speak about race the same way. Now we have this knowledge, like we used to talk about, The Man. Now he’s The Man, undeniably. In every way you can think about that term, he’s the man, he’s the man, he’s the man.
So, one piece of my show, there was this rally in 1968 where they had all of these posters that said “I Am” on them. And I made twenty paintings that start with that but that’s kind of weird, because originally they said things like: I Am a Man, I Am 3/5 of a Man, I Am Your Man. The idea is, by the end it says: I Am Human, I Am Many, I Am, Am I, Amen, it’s this kind of progression. For me it’s crazy that six or eight years before I was born, black people in America had to make a collective political statement to affirm their humanity.
Like that’s crazy. Think about the year 2000, that people from our time, people are saying: I AM A MAN, in this country. That’s crazy! And I fortunately benefited from all of their work. And what we saw in the hip-hop generation was this more selfish perspective of “I am the man”. I am really interested in that sort of progression.
Between the collective and the individual?
Yeah, exactly. Which speaks to the suggestion on how integration kind of affected the whole of the African American community. So with Barack Obama as President, what someone else brought up to me was that he’s also like, “I am the man” in that way too. So my work has to be a little bit more open minded.
So Ryan and I did this piece of him out of cereal. Essentially, cereal is second only to the auto industry in the amount they spend on advertising. And it’s only four basic grains. But most of it is sugar and like there’s 400 different kinds of cereal. So what this work is really about is how we have become so masterful at marketing an idea.
So, with Barack Obama, who spent more money marketing himself than any president ever the idea was like, his campaign was a success in advertising as much as it was a political or cultural success. I think he took the best of Apple and the best of Nike marketing and kind of melded those techniques to become a global phenomenon.
To make a really powerful statement.
But he really didn’t say much, you know during the campaign.
But he reached a huge audience with what he was saying; it was a very simple message.
Yea, Change. Be nice to people. And so our piece was trying to say: we have a tendency to only critique things that we think are bad and we tend to shy away from critiquing things that we are inherently supportive of. When we made this piece we talked about this really lush, sugary image that we have of him but also reminding ourselves that it is still the same basic four grains.
Still the same formula.
It’s business as usual with a different kind of sugar. And so that’s one of the ways that my work has been affected by Barack.