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