Hank Willis Thomas: ‘The slave era is not something that is in the past’

The Guardian

The artist discusses his new exhibition which mixes American flags with prison uniforms to examine whether the land of the free is really free for all

Dream McClinton for The Guardian


We the People.” “Liberty.” “Justice.” Words spelled out in quilted Daedalus-like mazes, in the new exhibition Another Justice: Divided We Stand, at the Kayne Griffin gallery in Los Angeles. All are associated with the ideals of the United States, revered like the stars and stripes of its flag. But stamped within the Liberty quilt is the word “inmate”. Capital, a green and white quilt, mirrors the stamp. Composed from prison uniforms and repurposed American flags, the quilts display the discordant harmony sewn together by capitalism and racism.


The new exhibition by Hank Willis Thomas, Another Justice confronts a great American hypocrisy: freedom in “the land of the free” is predicated on the incarceration and enslavement of populations deemed less valuable by America’s hegemony. Through massive labyrinthine quilts and human-like sculptures, the exhibition interrogates the gossamer presented by American ideals against the grimy reality many Americans live day to day.

“The thing about America: liberty, justice, equality are all terms that come to mind but, for millions of Americans throughout its entire history as a nation, that has never really been true,” the artist told the Guardian. “Looking at prison uniforms and recognizing that the stripes in the uniforms have the same size stripe as many American flags, I couldn’t help but make that correlation between the stars and bars and the bars that people live in all around the country.”


Willis Thomas explores enslavement and its legacy in his work and, though the exhibition deals with incarceration, he insists it is not a deviation from the subject. “The slave era is not something that is in the past. It’s something that we are actually living in today,” Willis Thomas explains simply. Though the institution of slavery was abolished in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th constitutional amendment, the amendment allows for involuntary servitude to continue “as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. According to the World Prison Brief, the United States incarcerates about 639 people per 100,000 people, which is widely reported to be the highest rate of any country in the world. This exorbitant incarceration rate is often viewed as an extension and the modern evolution of chattel enslavement.