Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas

United States 1976

Installation, Sculpture, Photography


Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas
United States
April 25, 2016
Nina Karaicic is a journalist with experience in TV and radio media. Born in 1989, she had studied at the University of Belgrade – Faculty of Political Sciences (Journalism). Interests: Photography, Art, Film, Folklore, Video Games

”Whoever’s holding the frame gets to tell us the story and shape our vision.” Hank Willis Thomas is trying to break the frame or at least blurs the lines, so people could realize that truth is maybe a little more complicated than the simple story we’ve been told. He’s interested primarily in the investigation of the construction of black identity through popular culture in the 17th and 18th century but also in the more recent times. The idea is that the truth is always better than fiction, and that’s the approach he uses when addressing the questions of race, advertising, and popular culture.

Hank Willis Thomas - The Truth Is I See You (Truth Tree), 2015, installation view at Metrotech Brooklyn, photo credits James Ewing, new york arts series american gallery 2016 museum search
Hank Willis Thomas – The Truth Is I See You (Truth Tree), 2015, installation view at Metrotech Brooklyn, photo credits James Ewing

The Art of Frame

Thomas is a conceptual artist who works in photography, installations, mixed media, sculpture, and he also makes videos. As a photographer, he captures moments and turn these moments into documents. In fact, he’s trying to organize the world he’s seeing. A lot of attention is given to the corner, the background and the foreground of an image, which then goes through a process of editing, where the artist renders and sketches it, listens to others’ advice and considers new ideas, all of that usually lasting for quite some time, before he turns it into a finished work. Every photograph is manipulated because it’s a split second of time, a narrow point of focus and it can never actually tell the complete truth as more things are happening outside of the frame than within it. Thomas has always been interested in how his own subjectivity limits his ability to see what’s really going on.

More things are happening outside of the frame than within it

Hank Willis Thomas - Zero Hour, 2012, installation view, jack shainman is an american gallery new york museum search
Hank Willis Thomas – Zero Hour, 2012, installation view

Choosing the Best Media

Because of those limitations, the artist’s has grown quite comfortable in not relying solely on photography as his one chosen medium of artistic expression. Instead, he rather contemplates the concepts he’s trying to create and chooses the best media to articulate the ideas he has. In most of his work, he uses the images and scenarios from the real ads as he thinks that critique then couldn’t really be about him as much as it could be about the images that we’re being served on a daily base and which we consume often without even giving it a second thought. The artist if fighting against this truth we’re being told and states it is of utter importance that we see beyond of what the people holding the camera want us to see.

He’s not relying solely on photography

Hank Willis Thomas - Raise Up, 2013, american gallery jack shainman new museum
Hank Willis Thomas – Raise Up, 2013

Branded and Unbranded

He received a BFA in Photography and Africana Studies from NYU in 1998, his MFA in Photography, and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies from California College of the Arts in San Francisco in 2004. Thomas grew up at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture where his mother, Deborah Willis, worked as a curator, so he’s been around the documents holding information on people of African descent worldwide. He became interested in the questions of slavery and its legacy from an early age, and it has defined his work, and who he is. After his cousin was murdered over gold chain he didn’t even wore at the time, Thomas started mixing the heritage of the black people with the popular culture and created B®anded series, which was too often perceived to be about his own personal feelings. He also created Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008, where he digitally removed the text from the corporate images that contained ‘blackness’ during this period, leaving only what’s on the photographs so the viewers could observe and interpret them as plain images.

The questions of race have defined his work

Hank Willis Thomas - Cotton Bowl, 2011, jack and jack
Hank Willis Thomas – Cotton Bowl, 2011


Breaking the shackles of the mind is sometimes more difficult than those imposed on the body. Even if we seem free to do as we want, to roam the world, we’re still seeing through the frame of those holding the camera, and we see what they want us to see. Hank Willis Thomas has dedicated his career to trying to break those frames, or at least to blurry the lines, so our minds would be free a well. A majority of his works is based on the question of race and slavery, and that is one of the darkest periods in the human history, whose consequences are evident up to this very day. Even though this type of work could be alienating, it isn’t, as many can relate to his quest for the liberation of the mind.

He is represented by Gregg Shienbaum Fine Art in Miami.

Hank Willis Thomas lives and works in New York.

Featured image: Hank Willis Thomas – portrait
All images courtesy of the artist

YearExhibition TitleGallery/MuseumSolo/Group
2016Hank Willis Thomas: The Thruth Is I See YouPublic Art Fund, BrooklynSolo
2016To Whom It May ConcernJablonka Maruani Mercier Gallery, BrusselsSolo
2016Hank Willis Thomas: Philadelphia Block ProjectPhiladelphia Photo Arts Center, PhiladelphiaSolo
2016Southern AccentNasher Museum of Art, Duke University, Durham, North CarolinaGroup
2015Primary SourcesDavid Winton Bell Gallery at Brown University, Providence, Rhode IslandSolo
2015The Truth is I See YouMetrotech, Brooklyn, New YorkSolo
2015In The Box: Hank Willis ThomasChrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VirginiaSolo
2015Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015Jack Shainmain Gallery, New York NYSolo
2015Seeing Now21c Museum Hotel in Durham, North CarolinaGroup
2015Us Is ThemThe Pizzuti Collection, Columbus, OhioGroup
2015Black Fire: A Constant State of RevolutionSheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska, LincolnGroup
2015Breath-Breadth: Contemporary American Black Male IdentityMaier Museum of Art at Randolph College, Lynchburg, VirginiaGroup
2015On Being BlackArnika Dawkins GalleryGroup
2015Winter in AmericaThe School, Kinderhook, New YorkGroup
2015Through the Eyes of OthersArts and Recreation Center (The ARC), Opa-Locka, FloridaGroup
2015Necessary Force: Art in a Police StateUniversity of New Mexico Art Museum, Alburquerque, NMGroup
2015Black Like Who?Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, ALGroup
2015Aperture PhotographsAperture Foundation, New York, NYGroup
2015Salon StyleStudio Museum of Harlem, New York, NYGroup
2015Diverse Works: Director’s Choice 1997-2015Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NYGroup
2015ReSignificationsthroughout Florence, ItalyGroup
2015Image-ObjectsCity Hall Park, New York NYGroup
2015Manifest JusticePop Up Exhibition, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2015Remember MeMichel Rein Gallery, Brussels, BelgiumGroup
2015Making Africa, A Continent of Contemporary DesignVitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhiem, GermanyGroup
2015Visualizing Our Americana, Color PolemicsThe Gateway Project, Newark, NJGroup
2015Repetition and DifferenceThe Jewish Museum, New York, NYGroup
2015Making HistoriesKansas City Art Institute, Kansas City, MOGroup
2015Terminal: On Mortality and BeautyPhoto Center North West, Seattle, WAGroup
2015RESPONDSmack Mellon, New York, NYGroup
2015American Scene Photography from the Martin Margulies CollectionNSU Museum, Fort Lauderdale, FLGroup
2014…and only the peopleGalerie Henrik Springmann, Berlin, GermanySolo
2014History Doesn’t LaughGoodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South AfricaSolo
2014Question Bridge Black MalesDuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago, ILSolo
2014Africa Now: Political PatternsSeoul Museum of Art, Seoul, South KoreaGroup
2014Select Cuts & AlterationsFoley Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2014The Photographer’s PlayspaceAperture Foundation, New York, NYGroup
2014Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary ArtStudio Museum in Harlem, New YorkGroup
2014SHAPESHIFTING: Contemporary MasculinitiesThe College of Wooster Art Museum, Wooster, OHGroup
2014Civil Rights: We have it in our power to begin the world over againVoid, Derry, IrelandGroup
2014Americans in New York 3Galerie Michel Rein, Paris, FranceGroup
2014Drawn to LanguageChildren’s Museum of the Arts, New York, NYGroup
2014Historias MezticasInsituto Tomie Ohtake, Sao Paulo, BrasilGroup
2014The People’s BiennialMuseum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, ILGroup
2014Bench Marksthroughout Chicago, ILGroup
2014Conjuring CapitalSan Art, Ho Chi Minh City, VietnamGroup
2014SecondhandPier 24, San Francisco, CAGroup
2014Black EyeWalker St. gallery, New York, NYGroup
2014NYC MakersMuseum of Arts and Design, New York, NYGroup
2014No Longer Empty presents: If You Build ItSugar Hill Apartments, New York, NYGroup
2014Giving Contours to Shadowsthroughout Berlin, GermanyGroup
2014The OpeningJack Shainman Gallery: The School, Kinderhook, NYGroup
2014Warp & WoofThe Hole, New York, NYGroup
2014Look At Me: Portraiture From Manet to the PresentLeila Heller Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2014Bull City SummerNorth Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, NCGroup
2013Hank Willis Thomasthe Cleveland Museum of Art and the Transformer Station, Cleveland, OHSolo
2013WayfarerPicture Windows Series, International Center of Photography, New York, NYSolo
2013About Face: Contemporary PortraitureNelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MissouriGroup
2013Landscape into AbstractionOrange County Museum of Art, Newport BeachGroup
2013Dis-semblance: Perceiving and Projecting Identity Today21c Cincinnati, OhioGroup
2013eMERGING: Visual Art and Music in a Post Hip-Hop EraMuseum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Brooklyn, NYGroup
2013How is the World?Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DCGroup
2013United StatesThe Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CTGroup
2013More American PhotographsWexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OHGroup
2012What Goes Without SayingJack Shainman Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2012Hank Willis Thomas: Believe ItSCAD Galleries, La Galerie Pfriem, Lacoste.Solo
2012Caribbean: Crossroads of the WorldEl Museo del Barrio, Queens Museum of Art, Studio Museum in HarlemGroup
2012 Contemporary MemoriesWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CTGroup
2012AttitudesCCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, CAGroup
2012Beyond BeautyTwig Gallery, Brussels, BelgiumGroup
2012What Do You Believe InNew York Photo Festival, 2012Group
2012Making HistoryMuseum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt GermanyGroup
2012Hard TargetsIndianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art, Indianapolis, IndianaGroup
2012United StatesAldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, CTGroup
2012The Sports ShowMinneapolis Institute of Arts, MinnesotaGroup
2011Strange FruitCorcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DCSolo
2011Scouring the Earth for My AffinitySamsøn Projects, Boston, MASolo
2011Untitled (12th Istanbul Biennial)Istanbul, TurkeyGroup
2011The Truth is I Am YouMoCADA and LMCC, Governors Island, NYGroup
2011The Bearden ProjectStudio Museum in Harlem, New York, NYGroup
2011More American PhotographsWattis Institute, San Francisco, CAGroup
2011Commercial BreakVenice Biennial, ItalyGroup
2011West EndMuseum on the Seam, Jerusalem, IsraelGroup
2011BecomingNasher Museum of Art, Durham, NCGroup
2011Posing BeautyUSC Fisher Museum of Art, Los Angeles, CaliforniaGroup
2011The February ShowOgilvy, New York, NYGroup
2011Elizabeth Catlett: StargazerBronx Museum, Bronx, NYGroup
2011Off the Beaten Path: Violence, Women and ArtChicago Cultural Center, Chicago ILGroup
2011In ContextIziko South African National Gallery, Cape Town, South AfricaGroup
2011T_XT_RTJenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
2011In Search of the Truth (Truth Booth)Galway Arts Festival, Galway, IrelandGroup
2010Hank Willis ThomasGalerie Anne De Villepoix, Paris, FranceSolo
2010All Things Being Equal…Goodman Gallery, Cape Town, South AfricaSolo
2010More American PhotographsCCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, San FranciscoGroup
2010Huckleberry FinnWattis Institute, San Francisco, CAGroup
2010Greater New York 2010PS1, Queens, NYGroup
2010UnfixedCenter for Contemporary Art, Dordrecht, NetherlandsGroup
2010Africa: See You See MeMuseu da Cidade Pavilhão Preto, PortugalGroup
20103rd World Festival of Black Arts and CultureDakar, SenegalGroup
2010Progeny TwoGantt Center, Charlotte, NCGroup
2010Posing BeautyWilliams College of Art, Williamstown, MAGroup
2010In ContextGoodman Gallery, Johannesburg, South AfricaGroup
2010After 1968Bronx Museum, Bronx, NYGroup
2010Houston FotoFest BiennialHouston, TXGroup
2010CONTACT Toronto Photography FestivalToronto, CanadaGroup
2010An Autobiography of the San Francisco Bay Area Part 2SF Camerawork, San Francisco, CAGroup
2010Hard TargetsWexner Center for the Arts, Columbus, OHGroup
2010Beg, Borrow, StealRubell Family Collection, Miami, FLGroup
2009Hank Willis ThomasAnnarumma 404, Milan, ItalySolo
2009Light TextNerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, KSSolo
2009Hank Willis ThomasBaltimore Museum of Art, Baltimore, MDSolo
2009Digging Deeper with Willie ColeWadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CTSolo
2009About TimeGalway – 126, Galway, IrelandSolo
2009Black is BeautifulRoberts and Tilton Gallery, Los Angeles, CASolo
2009Visionary DelusionsGeorgia Scherman Projects, Toronto, CanadaSolo
2009Pitch BlacknessJack Shainman Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2009The Black Atlanticar-ge kunst, Bolzano, ItalyGroup
20091969PS1, New York, NYGroup
2009Unnatural RubberThe Warhol Museum, Pittsburg, PAGroup
2009The Moving ImageOrange County Museum of Art, Orange County, CAGroup
2009ICP Triennial: Dress CodesICP, New York, NYGroup
2009Posing BeautyNew York University, New York, NYGroup
2009New York Photo FestivalPowerhouse Arena, Brooklyn, New YorkGroup
2009Double ExposureDePaul University Museum, Chicago, ILGroup
2009SIGN-AGE: Fight the PowerArmand Bartos Fine Art, New York, NYGroup
200930 Americans: Rubell Family CollectionRubell Family Collection, various venuesGroup
2008Hank Willis ThomasThe Fabric Workshop and Museum Storefront, Philadelphia, PASolo
2008Winter In Americade Saisset Museum, Santa Clara, CASolo
200830 Americans, Rubell Family CollectionMiami, FLGroup
2008Ours: Democracy in the Age of BrandingThe New School, New York, NYGroup
2008Houston Collects: African American ArtMuseum of Fine Art, Houston, TXGroup
2008Unchained LegacyWilliams College Museum of Art, Williamstown, MAGroup
2008After 1968High Museum of Art, Atlanta, GAGroup
2008Black Is, Black Ain'tThe Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, ILGroup
2008From Taboo to Icon: Africanist TurnaboutIce Box Projects Space, Philadelphia, PAGroup
2008We’re All in this togetherSwarm Gallery, Oakland, CAGroup
2008I AM A MAN – RevisitedMuseum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, Brooklyn, NYGroup
2008VideocracyTina B. Prague Contemporary Arts Festival, Prague, Czech RepublicGroup
2008Becoming: Photographs from the Wedge CollectionMuseum of Contemporary Art Detroit, MIGroup
2008Facing RaceMuseum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, OHGroup
2008Double ExposureMuseum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, CAGroup
2007Ad | AgencyPhotographic Resource Center, Boston, MAGroup
2007Branded and on DisplayKrannert Art Museum, Champaign, ILGroup
2007For the Love of the GameWadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CTGroup
2007Visual AlchemyOakland Art Gallery, Oakland, CAGroup
2007Negotiating Identities in Africa and the African DiasporaGettysburg College, PAGroup
2007Reasons to RiotMemphis College of Art, Memphis, TNGroup
2007Crossing the LineCornell Fine Arts Museum, Winter Park, FLGroup
2006B®ANDEDJack Shainman Gallery, New York, NYSolo
2006UnbrandedLisa Dent Gallery, San Francisco, CASolo
2006The California BiennialThe Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, CAGroup
2006KapitalKent Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2006The Black AlphabetZacheta National Gallery, Warsaw, PolandGroup
2006Metro PicturesThe Museum of Contemporary Art, North MiamiGroup
2006Black Panther Rank and FileYerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CAGroup
2006Emerging Artists Fellowship ExhibitionSocrates Sculpture Park, NYGroup
2006The Whole World is RottenContemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, OHGroup
2006Double ExposureWadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CTGroup
2005Bearing WitnessAfrican American Museum in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PASolo
2005FrequencyThe Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, NYGroup
2005Day LaborMoMA P.S.1, New York, NYGroup
2005Bay Area Now 4Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco, CAGroup
2005Remnants, RelicsJamaica Center for Art & Learning, New York, NYGroup
2005PropellerSteve Turner Gallery, Los Angeles, CAGroup
2005Saturday Night-Sunday MorningAfrican-American Museum in Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PAGroup
2005Maximum FlavorACA Gallery, Atlanta College of Art, Atlanta, GAGroup
2004The Trade Dress: Value JudgmentsDiaspora Vibe Gallery, Miami, FLSolo
2004Salad DaysArtists Space, New York, NYGroup
2004Jamaica FluxJamaica Center for Art and Learning, New York, NYGroup
2003Missing Person’sPro Arts Gallery, Oakland, CAGroup
2003POPULAR tmWorks Gallery, San Jose, CAGroup
2003MFA Thesis ExhibitionCalifornia College of the Arts, San Francisco, CAGroup
200325 Under 25: American PhotographersGulf & Western Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2003Saturday Night/Sunday MorningThe Leica Gallery, New York, NYGroup
2002Murphy & Cadagon Awards ExhibitionSan Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
2001Moments in Love, Intimacy and KinshipGrand Central Station, New York, NYGroup
2001The Legacy of Gordon ParksOakland Museum, Oakland, CAGroup
2001Latent DiscoveriesUniversity of Arizona, Tucson, AZGroup
2000Reflections In BlackSmithsonian Institution, Arts & Industries Building, Washington, DCGroup
2000Fuzzy LogicSouthern Exposure Gallery, San Francisco, CAGroup
1999Speak to my HeartSmithsonian Institution, The Anacostia Museum, Washington, DCGroup
1994Images & InspirationsNational Museum of American History, Washington, DCGroup