Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas is an artist based in New York and Paris. His collaborative project Question Bridge: Black Males premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and is currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum in New York, the Oakland Museum of California, the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, and Chastain Arts Center in Atlanta.


    Born in Nigeria and raised in Alabama, Odutola now lives in San Francisco, where she is completing her MFA at California College of the Arts. She will tell you that skin has a geography, and it is this territory that she explores through portraiture. Rendered in ballpoint pen, her surfaces are obsessive and intricate. Every stroke is drawn with care—thousands and thousands of lines create the almost completely saturated bodies of her dark figures.


    A self-taught Bay Area painter, Scott depicts members of his own community but reimagines them in new surroundings to present a complex yet earnest representation of problems in urban neighborhoods. There is a wonderful sense of humor, awareness, and activism in his colorful narrative portraits, maps, landscapes, and sculptures—qualities that are no doubt engendered by the environment of Creative Growth Art Center in Oakland, where he makes his work. Rarely represented by commercial galleries, “outsider” artists such as Scott are too seldom integrated into mainstream dialogues about contemporary art.


    The ephemera of yesteryear can provide a new lens on history, and I prize my back issues of these magazines, which—founded by Johnson Publishing Company in 1942, 1945, and 1951, respectively—were among the first widely circulated American news and culture magazines edited by and for people of color. Their articles promoted intellectual discourse and a sense of normalcy and integrity in everyday black life, while their ads channeled the hopes and desires of a disenfranchised community. Johnson has generously made the archives of these titles available online for free via Google Books, but I still prefer the experience of holding the original objects in my hands, each issue a time capsule from another era.

    *Covers of _Jet_* (left: *June 5, 1958*; right: *March 13, 1958*). Covers of Jet (left: June 5, 1958; right: March 13, 1958).

    I first became interested in Hung’s work when we met at the Omi International Arts Center in upstate New York. But his paintings and installations, which speak to the complexities of modern life in Vietnam, assumed greater meaning for me after I visited him in Hanoi. There, he is part of a network of musicians, sculptors, painters, designers, and cultural activists who are defining what a Communist country looks and feels like in the twenty-first century. I was fascinated to learn about the ways in which his once underground community, as it’s grown more established in recent years, has influenced the political system.

    *Nguyen Manh Hung, _Living Together in Paradise_ (detail), 2011*, mixed media, 9' 9 1/8" x 16' 4 7/8" x 16' 4 7/8". Nguyen Manh Hung, Living Together in Paradise (detail), 2011, mixed media, 9' 9 1/8“ x 16' 4 7/8” x 16' 4 7/8".

    As I’ve become increasingly invested in transmedia projects, I’m more and more excited to see what happens when technologists collaborate. This pair—Koblin, a data-imaging genius (and head of Data Arts at Google), and Milk, a filmmaker with a bizarre, beautiful mind—have designed some of the coolest projects in recent years. Among my favorites: The Wilderness Downtown, a Web-based music video (for the band Arcade Fire) that appears to take place in your own hometown, and the Johnny Cash Project, an animated, ever-changing, collective portrait of Cash by way of drawings made by visitors to the site. No matter what the content may be, from mass transit to pop music, Kolbin and Milk never fail to make us reconsider the ways we consume data.

    *Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, _The Wilderness Downtown_, 2011*, screenshot from an interactive online project. Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin, The Wilderness Downtown, 2011, screenshot from an interactive online project.

    In his innovative use of photography and video, installation and performance, Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda deftly integrates mythology and historical artifacts. Through sharp yet playful combinations of materials and sites—for example, Icarus 13, 2007, in which Henda imagines the first space mission to the sun being led by his home country—he examines the ideals of Communism and capitalism in Angola and in the nations that have intersected with this oil- and diamond-rich land’s past and present.

    *Kiluanji Kia Henda, _The Merchant of Venice_, 2010*, color photograph. Kiluanji Kia Henda, The Merchant of Venice, 2010, color photograph.

    I’ve always been a fan of earnestness in artmaking—against the insiderish, knowing tenor of so much contemporary work—and this duo, Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman, are unswervingly sincere. Through spoken word, song, dance, murals, and collaborative theatrical compositions, they give voice to the stories we hear but so often ignore or impulsively shout down. Climbing PoeTree and its creative community challenge me to be more innovative, courageous, compassionate, and outspoken in my daily practice; to work toward creating the world I want to live in despite the apathy and hyperbolic pessimism of our post–multiculti/structural/colonialist era.


    When society didn’t afford them the opportunity to participate in contemporary art and literary theory, a group of people living in and near Gugulethu, South Africa, came together to form Gugulective. Begun in 2006, this network of visual artists, poets, DJs, and writers produces work and stages salons, exhibitions, Happenings, and teach-ins in Cape Town and the surrounding townships that encourage people to use the framework of contemporary art to better understand their current conditions. That Gugulective exists at all seems to me an important indicator of progress—proof that fine arts discourse need not be limited to the wealthy or university-educated.


    This interactive, crowd-sourced project proposes a new form of the documentary. Showing how a mass movement can now collectively build—and keep current—its own history, 18 Days in Egypt makes it possible for events to be recounted from a multitude of perspectives and via all kinds of different experiences but in one place. It’s also ongoing: Original content is uploaded to the project’s website, then tagged, commented on, liked, and shared—allowing users to navigate, for instance, camel attacks in Cairo one moment and a solidarity march in Frankfurt the next. Storytelling will never be the same.

  10. PARIS

    In residence at Cité Internationale des Arts in Paris for the past year, I’ve found myself reflecting on America and my Americanness in ways I hadn’t expected. Thinking about politics, race, gender, immigration, and history as filtered through the French media, the ads in the street, and even the way the French language allows you to speak of these things has caused me to renegotiate much of my own cultural baggage.

    *View of the Left Bank, Paris, from Hank Willis Thomas’s studio, February 20, 2012. * View of the Left Bank, Paris, from Hank Willis Thomas’s studio, February 20, 2012.