Gail O' Neill for Artsatl
When Hank Willis Thomas’ 28–foot–tall, 7,000–pound sculpture All Power to All People went up on the Atlanta BeltLine’s Eastside Trail late last month, it invited a broader conversation about who we are, what we value and the role artists play as cultural historians. The touring exhibition — featuring the Afro pick and the Black Power salute — is here through August 12, then moves to Washington, D.C.
“I’ve always admired the sculptures of Swedish–American artist Claes Oldenburg, who could take any quotidian object, such as a garden spade or badminton birdie, and monumentalize it,” Willis Thomaswrote in an essay for CNN.com. “In Philadelphia, where my mother is from, [Oldenburg] made a colossal clothespin that sits outside of City Hall. But his sculptures tend to be of Western, American, middle-class iconography.”
Not so for Willis Thomas, whose conceptual mixed–media art has been a 20–year–long exploration of themes related to perspective, identity, systemic racism, popular culture and the commodification of African American athletes. His reimagining of the Afro pick, embellished with a raised fist and peace sign, symbolizes unity, pride and a self–love that speaks to African Americans. His choice to elevate an emblem of 1960s counterculture and raised consciousness feels prescient as monuments to Confederate leaders and slaveholders are being toppled, beheaded and slam-dunked from Richmond, Virginia, to Boston to Bristol, England.
“It feels like déjà vu,” says Camille Russell Love, executive director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, who collaborated with sponsor Kindred Arts to find a spot for the site–specific piece (and rocked an epic Afro herself back in the day). “I distinctly remember the night John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists at the Summer Olympics in Mexico City. Over 50 years later, the same thing is happening with Colin Kaepernick, the #BlackLivesMatter movement and protesters around the world as young people are forcing the world to deal with persistent racism.”
Willis Thomas — whose mixed–media works have been exhibited at New York’s International Center of Photography, the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain, and Paris’ Musée du quai Branly — comes from a long line of agitators and good–trouble makers whom he credits for insisting that he think critically and creatively. Deborah Willis, his mother, is an award-winning photographer, curator, historian, author and educator. Her 12-year tenure at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library left an indelible impression on her son, who says, “There was never a time I didn’t know that Black people were beautiful, brilliant and had done incredible things.” His father and namesake, Hank Thomas Sr., was a Freedom Rider, Black Panther, musician, scientist and visual artist. And Ruth Willis, his 98–year–old maternal grandmother, still exemplifies her conviction “that love overrules and nothing can take away the integrity in our heart when we have faith.”