When the North Carolina Museum of Art lets the public into its new park on Sunday, after a two-year-long renovation, two speech-bubble-shaped benches by the conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas will be among the new sculptures on permanent display. The benches, named Ernest and Ruth after Thomas's grandparents, echo The Truth Booth, a speech-bubble-shaped booth that collected responses to the prompt "the truth is ..." at NCMA earlier this year.
Though he is based in New York City, Thomas has a strong presence in the Triangle. His work is currently on view at 21c Museum Hotel and in Southern Accent at the Nasher, and he is represented in NCMA's permanent collection. Before moving into the conversational sphere, Thomas focused on advertisements. His early series B®anded repurposed ad imagery to examine the branding of black bodies by corporations, tracing it back to its most horrifically literal incarnation. And his Unbranded series, which strips the words from advertisements, lays bare the fundamental assumptions of the American psyche. Part of that series is currently on view at Greensboro's Weatherspoon Art Museum.
Thomas's examination of race, identity, representation, and commerce is often haunting and always timely. We sat down with him to talk about his focus on frames and conversations, his new artist-run super PAC, and his incessant search for the truth.
INDY: Where did the idea for Ernest and Ruth come from?
HANK WILLIS THOMAS: Well, I've been making a lot of work for the past several years inspired by speech bubbles, especially a project called The Truth Booth (In Search of the Truth), which was at NCMA earlier this summer. I've also been doing a series of signs that say in different languages, "The truth is I love you," "The truth is I know you," "The truth is I hear you," "The truth is I believe you." And I wanted to create a sculpture that people could inhabit, or just exist in, to try and make a statement. It would be this opportunity for people to playfully or functionally—and sometimes, subconsciously—interact with the creative process.
You talk a lot about "framing" with your work. Do you trust that people existing in this space, framed by a speech bubble, may spur the same sort of thinking that The Truth Booth has?
Ironically, I hadn't thought about that, so thanks for thinking about it. Maybe with the work I didn't really intend it, but everything in my work is about framing and concepts. Depending on where you're standing, it affects what you see. This would be a classic example of that, right?
The Truth Booth is on tour. You've mentioned that you want to hit all fifty states before Election Day. Have you been able to look at the footage yet?
Yeah, it's been pretty amazing to see all the different ways people participate. I think the universal lesson is that everyone has something valuable worth offering. You can never tell where wisdom will come from. If you follow @insearchofthetruth on Instagram, you can see the travels and videos uploaded from different sites.
Do you see The Truth Booth as having grown out of your earlier work, the B®anded and Unbranded series? Your sculpture?
It has been an ongoing quest for people who don't consider themselves artists to get involved in the discourse and to make statements. I think that's a lot what [the early work] is about as well: making the conversation about art legible for people who don't consider themselves artists.
You started your artistic life largely as a photographer, but have been doing more sculpture recently. Does it allow you to do anything that photography doesn't?
Photography is all about framing, right? Which is what led me to sculpture. I think every medium lends a new opportunity, a new way of seeing and representing an idea. And when sculpture gets to a certain size—I guess you could say the physiological interaction is pretty awesome.
There's a lot of your work in the Triangle. Do you have any sense of why your work is catching on here?
No! Do you have any suggestions?
I think questions about race are really crystallized in the South, but I don't know why North Carolina in particular.
Well, it's definitely a turbulent time in North Carolina, right?
Big time. I saw that you called race "the most successful advertising campaign in the world," referring to the creation of blackness in America. During this electoral cycle, there's a lot to think about with the creation of whiteness, too. Does that resonate with your work?
Yeah, that's why I'm really interested in framing, because whoever's holding the frame gets to create the reality. That's the way that we not only see one another, but the way that we see ourselves, the way we define and relate to humanity.
We're not interacting as individuals, but as these social roles.
Prototypes. Or archetypes.
Looking at what is lurking underneath the advertisements that we're all encountering every day—does it ever make you feel crazy?
Yeah, you start to see how some of our values are shaped or created, looking at these ads. Thinking about who they are for, the way that they function in society.
They reinforce things we already think while getting us to buy shaving cream or whatever. You talk about the importance of images in the public sphere that aren't trying to get you to behave in any sort of commercial way. Are the benches at NCMA connected to that?
I'd like to believe it's all connected, through viewers. Like you said earlier, each viewer has a connection to the work that I didn't see before. Sometimes, as artists, we get so focused on the headspace of making the art that we don't see the correlations of the projects, but I think they're obviously there, especially if I'm doing them all at the same time.
What's next for you?
I formed this super PAC called For Freedoms. We're looking to broaden community engagement, to build a critical discourse of the critical discourse in fine art.
So it's in the Question Bridge and The Truth Booth model of using art to promote dialogue and listening?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Free Speech"