Hank Willis Thomas, the guest editor of the latest Deciders issue of ARTnews, is an artist whose practice is so wide-ranging that it resists easy summary. He makes art in a variety of mediums (photography, sculpture, collage) and materials (recent work renders images of protests as screenprints on retroreflective vinyl). From the beginning of his career, he has been inverting recognizable branding and advertising messaging and imagery, using it to direct viewers’ attention to troubling aspects of the world we live in. A classic example is his photograph Priceless #1 from 2004, a spoof of a Mastercard ad with these words running across an image of the funeral of his cousin Songha Willis Thomas: “3-piece suit: $250; new socks: $2; 9mm pistol: $80; gold chain: $400; bullet ¢60; Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.”
Thomas’s practice also reaches beyond the art world, whether in the form of T-shirts made with Helmut Lang that say “It’s all about you” on one side and “It’s not about you” on the other; or his political action committee, For Freedoms, cofounded in 2016 with Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery; or the Incarceration Nations Network, an organization founded with Baz Dreisinger that circulates an exhibition of work by incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. Thomas has a packed schedule: his exhibition “Another Justice: Divided We Stand,” featuring work made from the American flag and prison uniforms, opened in November at Kayne Griffin gallery in Los Angeles (and counts as part of a larger For Freedoms initiative called “Another Justice: By Any Medium Necessary”). Nevertheless, he made time for ARTnews to create a list of individuals and institutions he feels should be honored as Deciders—those who, at this moment, are moving the needle in the art world.
ARTnews editor-in-chief Sarah Douglas spoke with Thomas about his experience deciding on the Deciders.
ARTnews: Let’s talk about the Deciders list. What was your first reaction to the invitation from ARTnews?
Hank Willis Thomas: My first reaction was, “Oh, hell no, I’m not doing that! I don’t believe in lists!” The most important people are always left off or made to feel less important. I detest the thought. But then I flashed back to our first conversation 15 years ago when I was just getting started in the art world and decided that you were offering me a gift that I couldn’t refuse. It’s an honor and also an opportunity to embrace my hypocrisy. That’s something I am wanting to do nowadays. So, thank you.
Lists can be vexing undertakings.
Lists are very limiting. This list is incomplete. Almost none of the Deciders in my life are on this list. They include my mom, [scholar] Deborah Willis; my wife, Rujeko Hockley [cocurator of the last Whitney Biennial]; my longtime gallerist, Jack Shainman; my other gallerists; my favorite artists and thinkers, Wangechi Mutu, Kambui Olujimi, Christopher Myers; my collaborators from my studio, For Freedoms, and the Wide Awakes… Maybe I should rethink this whole thing! What do you mean it’s too late?!
It’s a list of people you find to be influential right now, but it is not necessarily about you.
It’s an introduction to many and a reminder of some. Again, it is incomplete. It’s a list of people, just a very few people, that WE think have the ear of the moment. Each person is a community. None of us are much without the people who give us care and consideration, are we? What I was faced with most here is the limitations of my own memory.
It’s true that there are folks on the list who have not been as recognized as others.
A lot of what we know about people in the art world is what we see on social media or what we read in the press, but a lot of what I’ve been most excited about or interested in is a bit more behind the scenes—things people are doing that you don’t know about. So, I’m hoping to coax more people out of the shadows.
Is there something that the people on this list have in common?
A lot of the people, institutions, and collectives on this list take things that we are all familiar with and look at them in new ways. They are shifting the world on its axis so we can gain new perspective.
One thing a lot of the folks and organizations have in common is a collaborative spirit, which you yourself have. How has collaboration changed during the pandemic, when we’ve all been so confined?
During the pandemic, there’s been a distance between us that we’ve all really felt. At the same time, there’s also been an increased intimacy that comes from knowing we are all struggling with what is happening. It has been exciting to find out what we can do together despite the limitations.
What does it mean to be influential?
When I think about what it might mean to be a “decider,” to be influential in the world of art, I think of the idea of trust. These are people who, when they say something, we believe that thing. We trust that they believe in that thing. We pay attention and are inspired. These are people who have a track record of making influential decisions, who inspire change.
Let’s talk about the cover. How did you think about what you wanted to do for the cover?
I thought to myself, “What would Damien Hirst do?” That usually works.
What was your thought process in individualizing the figures? Do you see these as memoji portraits?
The metaverse is here. In a way, we have all become avatars, haven’t we? When was the last time you really felt like yourself?
Is there a special significance to Hirst’s involvement in the Drake album cover? He is, after all, a pop cultural phenomenon in his own right.
I’ll let the readers decide.
What, to your mind, are some of the most pressing issues in the art world today, whether those are issues facing artists or institutions?
The greatest question facing everyone alive at this time is: Will my future self be satisfied with what I did during one of the most transgressive moments in human history? That comes with a lot of follow-up questions for not only artists and institutions but collectors, advocates, writers, and, most importantly, the people who make up the institutions that create and uphold the status quo. Try these: Did I conform or did I transform? What did I transform into? Was it generative? Was it divisive? How complicit was I? How distracted was I? How inspiring, how strong, how caring? What did I make, what didn’t I make? What did I say? What didn’t I say, and why?
What makes you most hopeful or optimistic about the future of the art world?
Somehow I believe that we will address global warming before it is too late. I believe we can avoid catastrophic war. I believe we can learn to love ourselves and each other better and more. I believe we can make art that makes this possible. I am an artist with a strong voice who is descended from people enslaved on this land. I have two daughters who carry a rich legacy of overcoming obstacles and bringing beautiful things to light. I have no choice but to be hopeful.