Hank Willis Thomas adeptly works in a wide variety of media to address history, race, class, gender, and identity, as seen through the lens of popular culture, advertising, and marketing.
Thomas is, in his own words, “fascinated with how history and culture are framed, who is doing the framing, and how these factors affect our interpretation of reality.” By altering familiar images, icons, and logos, the artist raises questions about how media reflects and shapes popular opinion, and how history is negotiated, mitigated, and reconciled by the present.
The NCMA has several works by Thomas in the permanent collection, including a large-scale photograph, The Cotton Bowl, from 2011, which features a football player crouching on a yard line and a mirror image of an indentured servant crouching to pick cotton.
Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, 2011, digital C-print, 65 x 96 in., Gift of the North Carolina Museum of Art Contemporaries
A recent addition to the collection is a pair of sculptures installed in the Museum Park last fall. Shaped like cartoon thought or speech bubbles, Thomas’s Ernest and Ruth offers visitors a place to sit and interact with the works of art and with each other. “When viewers occupy the piece,” Thomas says, “they are encouraged to contemplate what it means to inhabit their own speech and beliefs.”
Hank Willis Thomas, Ernest and Ruth, 2015, steel plate and pipe, H. 83 x W. 96 x D. 48 in., Gift of Pat and Tom
Ernest and Ruth is part of a larger body of work by Thomas that includes In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth), a nationwide traveling public art project, created by Thomas with Cause Collective, consisting of a giant inflatable booth shaped like a cartoon speech bubble. Inside The Truth Booth, visitors are invited to record a response to the prompt “The truth is…,” and their recordings are added to an online video. The artists’ goal is to reach a broad range of people and places, and to give voice to diverse perspectives. The Truth Booth project started travelling around the world in 2011 (it came to the NCMA in 2016) and to date has recorded thousands of statements.
Hank Willis Thomas joined us for a celebration in the Park last fall and talked about Ernest and Ruth in this interview:
Linda Johnson Dougherty is chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the NCMA.
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