A Perfect Picture: Interview with Hank Willis Thomas
Interviewed by Dana Rettig
Someone once stated that a picture is worth a thousand words. A
picture does not just remind us of our past and present. It reminds
us of who we are as individuals as well as our perspective on things
that make life bittersweet in a poetic form. New York City native,
Hank Willis Thomas is the recipient of the 2007 Renew Media Arts
Fellowship and Artadia Fellowship. He has won numerous other
photography awards including the New York Foundation for the Arts
Fellowship. He has exhibited nationally and internationally known
galleries and museums such as PS1, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the
Zacheta National Museum of Art in Poland, the Yerba Buena Center for
the Arts in San Francisco and lastly, the 2006 California Biennial at
the Orange County Museum of Art.
Hank Willis Thomas was commissioned with Cause Collective to create a
video installation for the Oakland International Airport. Currently,
he is collaborating with Ryan Alexiev on public installation at the
University of California, San Francisco. More information on Hank
Willis Thomas and his projects can be found at
www.hankwillisthomas.com and www.causecollective.com
UM: Tell me a little bit about your photography background. What
inspired you to become a photographer?
HWT: Pictures inspired me to become a photographer. I was allured by
them before anything else. It also didn’t hurt that my mother,
Deborah Willis is a photo curator and historian. I’m just following
in her foot steps.
UM: Name two people that you believe are motivators (role models) in
the photography world.
HWT: I couldn’t name two and be fair to myself. So I’ll say two that
have known me a long time: my mother, Deborah Willis and Carrie Mae
UM: How does it feel to know that your work is nationally/
internationally recognized worldwide?
HWT: It’s crazy. Mostly because I still have so much to learn about
the world and art in general. It’s great to have international
opportunities, but the burden is realizing how little you don’t know.
I don’t want to ever come off as arrogant or too misinformed and since
so much of my work is political in nature, that can be a mine field,
UM: You told me via email that you are currently in France. Is this
your first time being in France? If so, please describe the feeling of
exploring France for the first time.
HWT: No, I’ve been here a few times. I am doing a residency here at
Cité des Arts in the center. It’s cool to be here because I like not
knowing the language and realizing that being black here means
something than being black in the U.S. or Senegal or Vietnam. Each
place I go I gain a greater sense of self. It makes me realize how
small major issues in the U.S are when you look at them from a global
UM: What is your perspective on black art in other countries,
HWT: I think in the U.S. and the U.K. people of African descent are
more visible in their mainstream art scenes (though many would argue
that it still isn’t enough) . In South Africa and Angola there are
major issues happening internally but people are engaging with Europe
more than the U.S. I haven’t been to Brazil. I think artists of color
in Europe are just more aware of global issues. Perhaps I’m misguided
on that one though because there are a number of prominent African
artists in the U.S. dealing with global issues as well. I think
“black art” anywhere is still just contemporary art.
UM: What is your definition of black art? Compare black art to modern-
HWT: Is there a difference? Aren’t black artists working today in
greater numbers and with greater visibility than ever?
UM: Besides photography, what are your present and future endeavors?
HWT: I consider myself more of an artist or photo-conceptualist than
a photographer. There are too many good photographers now. I’d rather
deal with photographs on a more conceptual level. What do they mean?
How can existing images be remixed with others to say something new?
How does framing and context affect our interpretation of an image?
How can I translate something from a photograph into a painting, video
or sculpture? What can words say that pictures can’t when they are
framed as art? Basically, I’m just doing what I’ve always done.
Asking questions that lead me down amazing paths.
Hank Willis Thomas Studio
In the Eyes of a Rebel: David Charles by Dana Rettig
Renaissance is French for change. It is a cultural movement in the 1920s that celebrated black art, literature, and music that experienced renewal and growth; originating in New York City’s Harlem district, which later became known as The Black Renaissance and the New Negro Movement. Authors and illustrators such as, Langston Hughes, Zora Neal Hurston, Jean Toomer, James W. Johnson, Aaron Douglas, Archibald J. Motley, and William H. Johnson were associated with the movement; establishing a new era of art and music for the strong and inspired.
Before Boondocks’ creator, Aaron McGruder told a tale about two inner-city kids, Huey and Riley Freeman finding their way as well as enduring the social ills of suburban life with their grandfather, Robert Freeman; there were artists that have paved the way for those who were afraid to shed light on societal ills such as racism, lynching, police brutality, and other ill-willed antics that have deprived African-Americans to attain any kind of prosperity. Baltimore native, David Charles is not your average illustrator. He is an illustrator that has shed some light on life beyond imagination since the third grade; displaying his talents based on observing his vicinity become desolated with drugs, poverty and police brutality.
After high school, David Charles’ work has been displayed at the Five Seasons club and the renowned Eubie Blake National Jazz Institute and Cultural Center in Baltimore, as well as in Brooklyn, New York and the October Gallery Philadelphia International Expo. Currently, David Charles depicts his art as “hip-hop on canvas” using color pencils and markers to evoke the African-American experience of Baltimore in various social ranges; including an inept, young man with dread locks who is sitting at a local bus stop, anticipating change for the human race in David’s latest piece, “Angel of the Slums”.
He has also donated his work to non-profit organizations and often shows his art to children and speaks to them about urban social injustice.
UM: Your work is amazing! Who/What prompted you to become an illustrator?
DC: “I think exposure to art is what motivated me to do illustration. I read a lot of comic books and was quite fascinated with the cover book designs and the authors who would write such amazing stories. Coming up, I used to copy images on a sheet of paper and just doodle. My mother bought me pads, crayons, and etcetera; just so I could use my imagination to the best of my ability. My cousin was an artist, so it was pretty much more of a hobby than a passion.”
UM: When you think of artists such as Archibald J. Motley,[ Aaron Douglas] and a few other artists in the Harlem Renaissance Era; what comes to mind when you think about their contributions to the Black Arts Movement as well as social/economical change in the 1920s?
DC: “Wow… that is a very good question. It’s complex, but good. Honestly, I don’t know much about the guys you have just mentioned. I’ve done everything on my own coming up because I have never received a formal education on artists such as the ones you have mentioned. My content comes from experience. However, I do know one artist that I believe is very interesting. His name is Ernie Barnes. [He] is the one who illustrated pictures for the television hit series, Good Times.
He exemplified of what an artist is made of. He made art his career as well as his passion because art is a very emotional process. For instance, I began pursuing art at the age of twenty-five. Although, I pursued art for the love of it; it was mandatory that I did some research on the illustrators before me. There is a fine line between business and passion. Business consists of money. It doesn’t attain anything emotional.
In other words, not only did Ernie make his art his passion, but he used art as a business venture, too. Mr. Barnes knew how to manage his passion and business at the same time.”
UM: Besides displaying wonderful images, what other talents do you possess?
DC: “I work with children. I do a little bit of writing, too. I never did a lot of writing because my art stood out.”
UM: What advice do you have for illustrators of tomorrow?
DC: “Continue to be creative because when you have the ability to change people’s lives, you must let it out. It can weigh on you if you don’t display your talent. For example, most of my friends are confined at this moment. I had sent them some of my art work and the firs thing that they said to me was ‘I love your art work, man. It brings me a sense of peace.’ Just hearing someone tell me how much I inspire them brings me joy. It lets me know that I have given someone a sense of hope despite of their circumstances. Educate yourself on art culture. Don’t let your gift(s) go unnoticed. Whether if you know it or not, you have a responsibility to affect people’s lives in a positive light.”
UM: How has giving back to the community changed your perspective on life?
DC: “Giving back to the community gives me a sense of purpose. Anytime you give back, you are doing God’s work. That’s the difference between living and existing. When you’re living, you are giving yourself to the community than expected. When you just exist; all you’re doing is breathing God’s air. You’re not doing something to positive to make a change within the community.”
UM: Describe your style of illustration.
DC: “My style of illustration is hip-hop on canvas. I was born in 1979; an era when hip-hop was about substance and creativity. It was about expressing issues within the city and all over the world. [Illustration] was a tool to express myself; to tell my story. Again, Ernie Banks’ signature was people with slim bodies and shut eyes. It was unique because no one else created that trademark but him. My signature of illustration is the big eyes. If you look at my work via online, you will see the big eyes on my characters. It’s a trademark. As far as hip-hop is concerned, back in the day, every MC was unique. Now, hip-hop is watered down. Everyone is a carbon copy of each other.”
UM: Who you would like to meet in the future and why?
DC: “I would like to meet [Ray Lewis]. I’ve seen him before, but I have never actually met the man face-to-face. Who else would I like to meet? I would like to meet Nas, Slick Rick, Papoose and many other artists that I believe are inspirational. I listen to their music when I illustrate. If I were to meet those brothers; I would thank them for inspiring me to illustrate. I’d love to break bread with them and tell them how inspired I am to do what I do and that’s moving forward in a positive light.”
To purchase prints or learn about David Charles visit www.theillestillustrator.com
In the Gallery with Artist John Edwards
by Terence Frasier
1. Jeff and Shaka came up with the concept of Afrikatalyst, and recruited people that they knew would be down with their artistic vision. Afrikatalyst provides people with day jobs in education or other service professions to have a voice in the art world and be a catalyst for new thoughts and actions. We have a unique perspective on what it means to be young and black today, by virtue of our “nine to five” gigs.
2. I’m inspired by current events, television and other media, barbershop conversations, and my own personal experience. Growing up, I bounced around between the “black world” and the “white world” and the tone of my artwork is a reflection of that.
3. My favorite method of creation is using pen and ink and colored pencils on paper. They’re mostly done in a single frame. I’ve recently been inspired by Johnnie to do some painting too, but I’m mostly a pen and pencil cartoonist.
4. Not to sound full of myself, but I really like all of my work. I’ve never been a fan of art with nebulous meanings and unrecognizable figures, so I try to make sure the viewer knows pretty much exactly what I mean with each drawing. “Reconstruction!”, however, is the most “controversial” which means a lot to me. It starts (and ends) many a conversation. Most people don’t know how to handle it. Even though it depicts the demise of a terrorist organization at the hands of hardworking American citizens, it still manages to put people off. Plus, I put the faces of some people I love in it too, for a personal touch.
5. This drawing is an updated version of a cartoon I drew for Morehouse College’s newspaper, The Maroon Tiger. I don’t think it was well-received by the student body at large. It was meant to be a tongue in cheek indictment of conservative policies at an HBCU, but I think the early version of the drawing was too subtle to get that point across. This version, however, is more of a criticism of society at large. Now that I’m older, the last ten years of my life have mirrored this drawing in many ways. I want people to realize that change can be a confusing and painful process, but it is necessary for survival.
6. At the moment, I print my artwork on t-shirts, hoodies, handbags and posters under the unofficial moniker “Pocketlint Productions”. Most recently, I have self-published a collection of my drawings and essays in a book entitled “The Slave who was Allergic to Cotton”, which I’ll be distributing out of the trunk of my car. Anyone looking to contact me for networking or to make purchases can find me on facebook (of course), and “Pocketlint” has a myspace page as well. The official website will be done soon.