A personal loss, in part, drives the artist Hank Willis Thomas to confront one of the biggest fears among African-American men.
In the soaring atrium at the entrance to Hank Willis Thomas’s exhibition “All Things Being Equal...” at the Portland Art Museum, a circle of 28-foot-long blue banners stitched with rows of white stars descends to the ground. Titled “14,719,” this immersive chapel of falling stars echoes elements of the American flag and commemorates the number of individuals shot and killed in the United States in 2018.
“The most likely way for young African-American men to die is by gun violence,” Mr. Thomas, a conceptual artist, said in his Brooklyn studio on the eve of his first major museum survey. The Portland, Ore., show, which opened this month, includes some 90 photographs, sculptures, installations, videos and collaborative public art projects that shine a light on painful American stories and the aspiration for social justice. “But all you have to be is alive in America and you can fall victim to gun violence,” Mr. Thomas said.
This urgent societal issue is acutely personal to the 43-year-old artist, who in 2000 lost his first cousin — with whom he shared an apartment in New York at the time — to robbery and murder. “I remember Songha and I joking about being 21 and black and, like, we made it,” said Mr. Thomas, ruefully. His grief and search for catharsis have been formative to his development as an artist, one who often co-opts familiar cultural imagery to pose nuanced questions about black male identity.
While at the California College of the Arts, where he received his master’s in photography and visual criticism in 2004, Mr. Thomas began “Branded,” his ongoing series of digital “C-prints.” He embossed the Nike swoosh logo repeatedly across a bare torso like whipping marks in “Scarred Chest” (2003), one of his many images drawing parallels between the violence to black bodies during slavery and the physical labor of black athletes generating revenue for universities and team owners.
“Hank uses the language of advertising, whether it’s actual words or the visual language, to think about the underpinnings that move throughout our culture and how those messages can either uplift or in many cases reinforce biases or racist practice,” said Julia Dolan, who curated the Portland exhibition with Sara Krajewski.
With his childhood friend and fellow artist Kambui Olujimi, Mr. Thomas used the G.I. Joes they once played with to re-enact the last five minutes of his cousin’s life in the 2005 stop-motion animation “Winter in America,” on view in the exhibition. “As boys in the United States, we’re given action figures with guns and encouraged to create scenarios based around violence,” he said. “We then turn around and say it’s a shame when gun violence happens.”
Mr. Thomas’s struggles to deal with the death of his cousin, and of so many other African-American men, precipitated another collaboration begun in 2010 called “Question Bridge,” a five-channel video-mediated dialogue between more than 150 black men. He teamed with Chris Johnson, Bayete Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair to fan out across country, meeting African-American men who would pose questions to their peers on camera, such as, “I wonder, black man, are you really ready for freedom?”
“We had five people answer that question and each one answered it dramatically differently,” Mr. Thomas said. “We were on a mission to try to define black male identity, because it’s so often spoken about in our society, but actually showed that there’s as much diversity that exists within any demographic as there is outside of it.”