Hank Willis Thomas shape-shifted in his recent exhibition ‘What Goes Without Saying’, if cryptic messages, abbreviated text and symbols of the enlightened are signs of the time. Pieces varied from African-American-inspired quilts to a video of the Confederate flag rendered in red, black and green, bursting into a cacophony of coloured patterns, it is accompanied with a speech by Martin Luther King. The flag itself, in Black Righteous Space (2012), is re-coloured and corresponds to the coordinates of John Sims’ epic quilt Afroconfederate (2002). Here, as elsewhere, Thomas appropriates images and work with aplomb.
The show offered a miscellany of works from Thomas’s oeuvre to date. He revisited an approach evident in his ‘Unbranded’ series (2005–08) which used figures from advertisements, digitally removing logos and text, created to target an African-American audience. His recent spin involves appropriating images used in cigarette advertising. Works such as It’s More You (2012), It Shows (2010), Believe It (2010) and Look Natural 1970 (2010) feature ads using figures and slogans without the product or original backgrounds. What are exposed are the fashions and hairstyles of a particular era in the 1970s. (The main figure in Believe It appears to be a spin-off of blaxploitation film star Richard Roundtree in his signature role as Shaft.)
Offering a critique of the late 1960s and ’70s at the advent of the black power movement, Thomas strips objects to their bare essentials – sign and text – so as to coax new meanings. In Fair Warning Signs (2012), ad slogans divested of images are remade as prints with white lettering on black paper hung in black wooden frames. Statements such as ‘For all the right reasons’ and ‘The length you go to for pleasure’ sound like morality tales. Do these statements resonate for the artist as personal mantras or are they critiques of corporate America, subliminal messages that flip marketing slogans into life lessons? Thomas works like an advertising specialist, coding short statements and sentences to imply multiple meanings.
In Flying Geese (2012), Thomas uses slave quilt motifs. This work is set in stained African mahogany enhanced by cut-outs of a digitized vintage photo depicting a crowd scene, taken around 1910 by the African-American photographer A.P. Bedou. Raised, so to speak, amidst the archives of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, due to his mother’s important work with early black photographers, Thomas’s use of such images is certainly apropos. The Schomburg Center is a repository and archive of black culture, history and life, named after the acclaimed Harlem Renaissance historian, writer and activist, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.
South Bend (2012) is, I assume, a nod to the so-called Gee’s Bend quilts, which were made by women in rural Alabama. The work uses jerseys from various basketball teams to construct a ‘Broken Dishes’ quilt – a block-quilting style that utilizes half-square triangles. Quilting codes were used as a way of communicating with slaves escaping from the South to the North along the Underground Railroad; the ‘Broken Dishes’ quilt indicated that broken crockery existed at a particular landmark. Thomas brings aspects of black tradition into the 21st century and this quilt establishes a connection with his ‘Branded’ series (2003–ongoing) that includes commentary on black basketball players and the black male body as a commodity. All-star college teams such as the Michigan Wolverines and UCLA Bruins are represented by fragments of the teams’ jerseys, and included are the retired numbers of notable NBA stars Chris Weber and Tyler Hansbrough. Thomas’s use of basketball icons, ephemera and silhouettes echoes the importance of the sport within the black community, where excelling at basketball is synonymous with success to many, especially black male youth.
Symbolic use of black and white in Seeker (2012) riffs on the artist’s ideas about race and hybridity, transcribed into the figure of Sanford Biggers as a 19th-century black dandy/performer replete with top hat and tails, painted half white and half black. Thomas appropriates this figure from a well-known photograph from Emory University’s repository of images depicting African-American life. In a recent interview, Thomas contended that we are now talking in terms of post-racialism, yet here is someone from the late 19th century dealing with these ideas as well.
In a collection of 16 square paintings made in 2012 and derived from political symbols, buttons and posters based on elections and movements covering a 50-year period, I get Thomas’s drift about the relationship between identity and politics. But was the point here to show non-partisan support given that the opening of the show predated the US presidential election by several weeks?
Can Thomas be considered a political artist? In works such as Seeker and Thenceforward and Forever Free (both 2012), where the interjection of a white presence is made, and in the range of voices suggested by his political slogan works, he perhaps seeks to implicate a softer, gentler reality in reference to race relations.