Untitled (Blackness): Q+A With Hank Willis Thomas



American artist Hank Willis Thomas, who was born in New Jersey, grew up in New York and now lives in Paris, is included in the Istanbul Biennial’s group exhibition “Untitled (Passport).” His 2009 wall sculpture A Place To Call Home (Africa-America) is an approximately 8-foot-high metal map of the outline of North America, with, beneath it, Africa replacing South America. The striking visual symbol affords numerous interpretations: for example, Jens Hoffmann and Adriano Pedrosa, writing in the companion text, call it “a possible different history of the African diaspora.”

Another presentation, solo, at the Biennial, “I Am A Man,” includes 20 small paintings hung in two a row, each with black-on-white text based on the Civil Rights-era protest signs “I Am A Man.” Each painting offers a variation, such as “I Am 3/5 Man,” “You The Man,” and, in the final canvas, “I Am. Amen,” which is the name of the series of which the work is a part.

A.i.A. discussed these works and the ideas that inform them with Thomas over breakfast during the preview of the exhibition.

BRIAN BOUCHER  When I first saw A Place To Call Home (Africa-America), it struck me as a representation of the slave trade as the foundation of American prosperity. But it certainly could be interpreted in other ways. Can you tell me about some of the ideas behind the work?

HANK WILLIS THOMAS  It’s related to ideas about being a hyphenated American, an African-American in a visible sense. There’s this mythical connection to Africa that is embedded in your identity, but many people go to Africa looking for home and don’t find it because our roots are so diluted there. They also never felt at home in the U.S., where they were born. I wanted to make a place where African-Americans come from.

BOUCHER  Have you traveled to Africa?

THOMAS  Since making that piece, I’ve had four or five shows on the continent of Africa. I went to Angola, Senegal and South Africa. There are clear differences in the way people look and carry themselves, and the whole way of being “authentically black” in each of those places is dramatically different. Identity politics is kind of passé but blackness is an empty space that is so hard for a lot of people to get out of. It’s a black hole.

BOUCHER  The other work in the show, I Am A Man, is based on photographs by Ernest Withers from 1968, from the Memphis Sanitation Workers’ Strike. What meaning do these posters hold for you, and how did they give rise to this work?

THOMAS  I was born in 1976, and I was amazed that just eight years before I was born it was necessary for people to hold up signs affirming their humanity. The phrase that I grew up with was “I am the man,” which is also influenced by African-American culture but takes a very different starting point. What I was interested in was, how many other ways could I read that phrase?

BOUCHER  What were some of the inspirations for the other variations?

  In the U.S. Constitution, blacks were considered three-fifths of a man. Then there was the slogan adopted by the Quakers, “Am I not a man and a brother?” There are a lot of other references, like “Ain’t I a Woman?” is a reference to Sojourner Truth’s famous speech, but also the Women’s Liberation movement. The final painting in the group says “I am. Amen.” The greatest revelation should be that we are.

  Back to A Place To Call Home, it’s great to see that piece in Istanbul, a place that is between Europe and the East.

Can you define a continent? It’s a landmass surrounded by water. So what is Europe? It’s a part of Asia. The lines between nations are imaginary, just like the lines between races. For example, I was doing a project in Ireland, and a Bulgarian friend there told me a story. He was on the way from Dublin to Galway and he saw a road crew of construction workers. He remarked to the driver that it was the first time he saw an all-white construction crew. The driver said, “They’re not white. They’re Polish and Lithuanian.” All these firm distinctions begin to crumble.