All Things Being Equal: Hank Willis Thomas at the Cincinnati Art Museum
Susan Byrnes | Community Voices
Artist Hank Willis Thomas’ first major retrospective, “All Things Being Equal” is open at the Cincinnati Art Museum. It was planned long before the pandemic hit and the country marched in protest of the murder of George Floyd. Now Thomas’s work, which addresses the ongoing struggle for liberty and equality that African Americans face, communicates with even greater urgency. The show has over 100 works including photography, video, interactive installations, sculptures, neon, and even textiles.
The very first thing you see when you enter the exhibit is a giant, 800 pound Afro pick comb with a Black Power fist at the top, titled “All Power to All People”. He took this object, common in many African American homes, and made it a new kind of public monument. It stakes its claim, piercing the ground with stainless steel rods for teeth. Thomas works with ordinary, everyday imagery, looking at history as well as current culture to create his multi-media art.
In a recent virtual discussion, he talked about one of his earliest inspirations, his mother, “She took it upon herself to go and find photographs from the 19th century taken by Black photographers of Black people."
Debora Willis is a photography scholar and MacArthur “Genius” Award recipient whose groundbreaking book subverted stereotypical and racist representations of Black people in popular culture.
“I grew up while she was doing that research," says Thomas. "Her first book was called Black Photographers 1840-1940 A Bio- Bibliography. And, who knew that there were images of African Americans that were so beautiful and dignified, taken two decades before the Emancipation Proclamation? Black people were making photographs.”
And he builds on that tradition. Photography is often at the core of his work, even if it takes the form of a sculpture or a painting. Thomas focuses on that specific detail in a photograph that sticks in your mind.
Exhibition curator Nathaniel Stein describes how Thomas turned one such detail into a wall filled with two long rows of white canvases, “On each canvas there’s a very carefully painted black lettering which bears a statement relating to the phrase “I AM A MAN” which is a phrase that comes from a sign that was held up by the strikers in the Memphis sanitation workers strike in 1968.”
In a historical photograph of the strike, soldiers point guns at the marching workers, who carry identical signs, but in Thomas’ interpretation, each of the twenty canvases say something different…”Be A Man” “Am I A Man” “Aint I A Woman”. The last phrase is “I AM, AMEN”.
“So that the work ends with a phrase that expresses with profound economy, the fundamental revelation that the most important thing of all is that you exist,” says Stein.
In addition to history, Thomas uses the visual language of advertising photography to create the series “Branded”, questioning corporate profits and the exploitation of Black people, especially in the sports world. His photographs feature Nike swooshes as scars in skin, and a chain connecting a ball to a soccer player’s ankle. I saw these with Darren Anderson, a former NFL player and a member of the museum’s community committee.
“I will tell you that when I first got involved with the committee, I thought I would be talking about the positive images that the athletes brought to marketing,” says Anderson.
But Thomas’ take changed his thinking. We looked at one picture called “The Cotton Bowl”, after the college football game student athletes play without pay.
“There’s a black man picking cotton with a straw hat, and he’s in a 3-point position, and he is our past," says Anderson. "He did it for free, he worked his butt off, from the beginning of the morning to the middle of the night, and then on the other side of him going against him is another Black athlete in a three-point stance. That athlete is in his football uniform and helmet. In both instances, they’re doing it for free, they’re doing it with all their heart, and the guy in the football uniform is not at all receiving any of the long term benefits that this game of football brings to so many Americans.”
Thomas’ work can be hard to look at. One realistic sculpture shows a man with limbs being pulled in four directions between the National Guard and protesters. This really disturbed Darren, so we moved on.
At the end though, Darren said he was glad he experienced the show, “It changes your mind and allows your mind to grow hopefully in a way that you can process it better every time you have issues with people that don’t see you like you see you.”
Being seen, and seeing oneself within the context of our culture, in all its complexity, is what Thomas is trying to communicate. His art shows us to ourselves.
“And so I’m not outside of the system that I’m trying to critique. I don’t think anyone truly can be,” Thomas says of his work.
So Thomas is making change from within, reshaping our cultural symbols with a critical eye that rises to these times. All Things Being Equal is open through November 8.
Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO and supported by WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.