‘Public art is propaganda, frankly’

‘Public art is propaganda, frankly’

Hank Willis Thomas discusses gun violence and the urgent need for alternative memorials

Charmaine Picard for The Art Newspaper - 31 October 2019

A host of the artist’s exhibitions and public projects open in various locations across the US open this year

Hank Willis Thomas is making some of the most urgent, timely art in the US. With a knack for adopting popular icons and signs, whether in the form of sporting imagery or memorable photographs of historic events, he takes on key issues, including racial injustice and gun violence, and the historic events underpinning them, like colonialism and slavery, as exemplified in his photographic series Strange Fruit (2011). His work assumes numerous forms – from photographs and video to public sculpture – and the breadth of his work is reflected in his first-ever museum survey, which has just opened at the Portland Art Museum in Oregon. Meanwhile, he has an array of public projects being unveiled this year­—on the High Line in New York and at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge—and next, in Boston and Seattle.

The Art Newspaper: Mass shootings in US cities like Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton are on the rise. Can you talk about your commissioned work on gun violence at the Portland Art Museum?

Hank Willis Thomas: There are beautiful memorials to presidents and to victims and fallen soldiers of foreign wars on the Washington Mall. Here in New York, we have World War I and World War II memorials, and we have yet to have a memorial for the American soldiers and civilians who died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we lost nearly 10,000 American soldiers in the past 20 years. During that same time, more than 200,000 people have been shot and killed in this country. And there is no discussion about how to memorialise the lives of American citizens who fall victim to weapons of war at home.

Since my cousin, Songha Willis Thomas, was murdered as a victim of gun violence in 2000, I’ve been asking myself: “How do you measure life? How do you memorialise life?” The Portland commission is a flag-based work, where each of the 14,719 five-pointed stars commemorates a person who died from gun violence in 2018. These stars represent our American mythology and iconography.

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