At home with artist Hank Willis Thomas

At home with artist Hank Willis Thomas

Pei Ru Keh - Wallpaper* - 15 January 2021


In our ongoing ‘At Home With’ profile series, we go home, from home, with artists to hear about what they’re making, what’s making them tick, and the moments that made them. Here, we speak to American artist Hank Willis Thomas about how a premonition in January 2020 led him to the forefront of one of the most overdue cultural reckonings of the last 100 years.

2020 was a very busy year for Hank Willis Thomas. For most artists, the peak of such a year might be the staging of a first major career retrospective, such as his presentation of ‘All Things Being Equal’ at the Cincinnati Art Museum this past autumn. But for Thomas, this was supplanted by his involvement in The 2020 Awakening, a new campaign launched by For Freedoms, the artist-led platform that he, photographer and political scientist Eric Gottesman and art producer/historian Michelle Woo launched in 2016.

Like many of For Freedoms’ other initiatives, The 2020 Awakening explores the way art and creativity can lift the lid on discussions around civic issues and shape the ideas, institutions and attitudes within American society. It believes in the power of creative collaboration to help reimagine the future.

Inspired by the Wide Awakes of 1860, a youth organisation formed by abolitionists who campaigned for personal freedoms such as free speech and free men, The 2020 Awakening seeks to build an open-source network of Wide Awakes – creatives transcendent of region and origin – by providing resources through its Infinite Playbook that empowers anyone to use their voice in support of the new four freedoms: listening, healing, justice and awakening. Simply put, anyone can be a Wide Awake. 

Thomas’ efforts for For Freedoms are the latest additions to the long and respected career that he has forged by creating photography, sculpture, video and public art that have continually confronted ideas of inequality, discrimination and bias. 

Wallpaper*: Where are you as we speak?

Hank Willis Thomas: I’m at my studio. It’s actually in Gowanus now. I had to move [out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard] directly because of Covid. It was really complicated [to get in there] because they would only let one person in at a time. I’m now sharing with my friend [photographer] Justin Brice Guariglia and am just adjusting to being in a new place after being in the Navy Yard for five years.

W*: Which career moment will you never forget?

HWT: I did the largest collaboration that I’ve ever done in my life last year; For Freedoms, Wide Awakes and the 2020 Awakening. It’s definitely much bigger than anything that I could have ever imagined. I became more than ever before, part of a community: all the Wide Awakes and all the people in For Freedoms, and all the people who chose to see themselves as part of something bigger and generously shared their creative energy – that was really life-altering for me.


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