Ashley Stull Meyers for Mutual Art - 10 April 2017
Hank Willis Thomas has long illuminated the histories of racialized labor, Black cultural economies, politically crafted imagery, and their cumulative roads to revolution. His keen examinations of political gesture are steadily outgrowing their categorization as visual art and becoming increasingly discursive projects rooted in actualization. On the heels of his recent exhibition at Savannah College of Art and Design, Willis Thomas offers new avenues for politicizing creative work without the reduction that accompanies art-world trends.
Ashley Stull Meyers: You just opened an exhibition at Savannah College of Art and Design. Can we talk about the installation Blind Memory and the site-specificity of it?
Hank Willis Thomas: The museum at SCAD has a very particular history. It was once a 19th-century railway depot. I did an installation in what were previously loading bays but are now vitrines. They call them “jewel boxes.” We filled them with four commodities that were popular during the era, that would have seen a lot of movement through that space—cotton, tobacco, indigo, and rice—all of which would have been handled by slaves. The containers are twelve feet high, so it’s a large quantity.
ASM: What does it mean for the site to now be a museum? Do you think this history is something that SCAD will always grapple with in public? Or was the exhibition an opportunity to make transparent something that’s treated with hesitation?
HWT: That history will always be a part of the building. Not every artist chooses to make commentary on it when they’re invited, but for the public, that’s part of the lure of the place. A history of slavery is part of the lure of Savannah. So many people and things moved through here that it’s embedded, and I was eager to work with that.
ASM: You’ve expanded your work in the past year with the creation of the artist-run super PAC “For Freedoms.” As you formed a cohort and the idea started to seem more and more tangible, what thoughts were you having about the intersection of an artist practice with the sort of social project that’s not only bound in politics, but money?
HWT: In some part it’s about conversation and visual art, but the money aspect is the real driving force behind it. My collaborators and I recognize that the political system is a commercial industry, just like the fine-art world. Both trade in abstract ideas—to me it doesn’t feel like much of a leap. Part of our interest in creating For Freedoms was to acknowledge the commonalities between art and politics, but also make visible the bridges between the two. There’s a need for critical and creative thinking, which is not something that our president encourages. Art both encourages and demands it. We’re seeing what’s at stake in the political landscape, and we need spaces for critical language and deeper conversation. We want alternatives to empty catchphrases.