Acclaimed conceptual photographer Hank Willis Thomas is known for commandeering American advertising strategies in order to challenge constructions of race and gender in the United States. For several years he has also been appropriating the historical artifacts of past social struggles, from the holocaust to the civil rights movement to apartheid, and transforming these records into primary sources that can speak to today’s cultural conflicts. Hank Willis Thomas: Primary Sources brings together mix media sculptures, retroreflective screenprints and a five channel video installation of James Baldwin’s prescient social criticisms to explore the dynamic ways in which Thomas revisits historical narratives for the present. The work included in this exhibition compelling communicates contemporary acts of protest mediated, as they always are, through the events of history.
Thomas trained as a photographer, but he rarely takes his own pictures. Instead, he borrows from a wide range of sources that he transforms through physical and textual manipulations. His practice draws on the legacies of appropriation and pop art while exploring the physical and intellectual boundaries of photography’s medium. The works included in this exhibition upend the status of the photograph as something fixed; challenge the social function of the narrative image; and explore the phenomenological qualities of mimesis, while contending with what George Baker describes as the “spatial expansion of the photograph” into real space.
Thomas’s experimental approach to image making reflects his broader investigation of the historical and cultural apparatuses surrounding issues of race, gender, and identity today. In using historical images of struggle as the foundation of his work, he zeros in on the physical details of the individual in these images, highlighting universally legible hand gestures or identifying other forms of non-verbal communication. While, as Mary Fulbrook notes, focusing on bodily gestures may at first seem trivial in the context of a larger exploration of twentieth-century oppression, doing so helps “illuminate the ways in which dictatorships were enacted, experienced, or subverted in everyday life.” In deconstructing the architecture of such primary sources, Thomas begins to decode their continued and contemporary meaning.