Artist to Know: Hank Willis Thomas

Liz Catalano
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Wright Presents Symbolic Black Power Sculpture in Upcoming Sale

Now in the mature period of his career, American artist Hank Willis Thomas continues to stir conversation around race, gender, and commercialism. His photographs and multimedia works are intended to prompt questions rather than answer them. That has always been an intentional goal for the artist, who believes that “the most revolutionary thing a person can do is be open to change.”

Threads of revolution run through many of his works, particularly in reference to the Black Panthers, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the social advancements of the 20th century. One of Thomas’ symbolic revolutionary sculptures will come to auction with Wright on September 30th, 2020, at 1:00 PM EDT. Learn more about his career— both past and present— before placing a bid.

Hank Willis Thomas with Sharon Daniels’ Amends/ Civil Death. Image from KQED.
Hank Willis Thomas with Sharon Daniels’ Amends/ Civil Death. Image from KQED.

The son of two photographers, Thomas was always drawn to art. After earning his BFA from New York University and his MFA from the California College of the Arts, Thomas formally entered the American art scene in the early 2000s. His breakthrough came with a photographic series that juxtaposed images of enslavement and punishment with professional sports. Basketball and Chain (2003), for example, shows a leaping pair of sneakers chained to a basketball at the bottom of the frame. Photos of a cotton picker across the yard line from a football player and a bald head branded with the Nike swoosh also boosted his fame. These photos are recognized as the starting point of the artist’s career and now consistently perform at auction. For example, Christie’s sold a print of Basketball and Chain for USD 30,000 last year. 

Over time, Thomas began to reflect more on the history of protest and resistance within his work. He began depicting bronze arms raised in solidarity and afro picks topped with a clenched fist. Thomas has maintained a commitment to commenting on race in America, especially unpacking mass incarceration and the lasting effects of slavery.

Speaking about his works, the Portland Art Museum’s Julia Dolan said, “They challenge viewers to acknowledge histories of struggle and the damaging legacies of oppressive systems without losing sight of the hope for meaningful change… [His art] also forefronts his belief that confronting and acknowledging our collective past can help move us forward in constructive and collaborative ways.”

Hank Willis Thomas, Peace, 2019. Image from Wright.
Hank Willis Thomas, Peace, 2019. Image from Wright.

A 2019 cast glass sculpture from Thomas will appear in Wright’s upcoming Art & Design event. It shows a black-and-white hand making the peace sign. The lot is offered with an estimate of $5,000 to $7,000. “The peace sign has been an element of black power… it’s an urgent public art piece serving as a symbol of unity, pride, strength, perseverance, justice and belonging,” Thomas said about the sculpture. “I wanted to highlight this idea of the Black Power movement as always being a peace movement.” 

Thomas has also spent time exploring modern consumption, seen in his tongue-in-cheek reimaginings of brand names, logos, and advertisements. A 2013 painting contrasting the titles of Jet and People magazines sold for $75,000 in late 2018. The hammer price was one of the artist’s highest thus far and well exceeded the high estimate of $20,000. Four screenprints produced around the same time have also entered the market recently. Offered as a set, each print shows a slogan devoid of its product. Phrases like “The latest in pleasure” and “Where the flavor is” are placed against a grainy background, calling the viewer’s attention to their meaning and cultural implications. This set reached $10,000 in a recent Christie’s sale.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Writing on the Wall, 2020. Image from Hypebeast.
Hank Willis Thomas, The Writing on the Wall, 2020. Image from Hypebeast.

Thomas continues to be active in political and social issues. Earlier in September, Thomas revived his 2014 The Writing on the Wall installation to reveal the experiences of incarcerated individuals during the COVID-19 crisis. He is collaborating with Baz Dreisinger of the Incarceration Nations Network to project the words of the incarcerated onto the Brooklyn Public Library. The installation is set to continue through the end of the month. 

Thomas has also organized pop-up performance art events honoring the Wide Awakes, an activist group of the 1860s who fought for emancipation. When he is not hosting these historically-inspired rallies, Thomas is writing and speaking about the need for change in America.

“It’s our responsibility in the 21st century, when we have incredible access to information, to understand that there’s never going to be one sufficient way of telling history,” he wrote in a CNN piece calling for a new approach to public monuments. “It’s really through embracing nuance that we can learn from the past.” 

Thomas’ cast glass peace sign sculpture will be available at 1:00 PM EDT on September 30th, 2020. For more information on this piece and to find the full auction catalog, visit Wright

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