In the darkened alley of SOMA’s Annie Street, a crowd huddles in what passes for cold in San Francisco, waiting excitedly for the flipping of a switch. The occasion? The latest in Sites Unseen’s series of site-specific artworks commissioned for Yerba Buena’s alleys: an animated neon sign by New York-based artist Hank Willis Thomas.
Mounted on the tall, windowless side of the Salma Family Building at 165 Jessie Street, 6-foot-6-inch letters now spell out “LOVE OVER RULES.” Each word gets a line; alternating ons and offs encourage different reads. Is it “love over rules” or “love overrules”?
Thomas shares that uncertainty with the viewer. The words come from the lines of a song recorded by Thomas' cousin, Songha Willis, shortly before he was murdered in Philadelphia in 2000. “He was my life plan,” the artist says of his cousin at a talk hosted by the California Historical Society the night of sign’s inaugural lighting. “I wanted to be his backup singer.”
Thomas moved to San Francisco to attend graduate school at California College of the Arts shortly after his cousin’s death, and says he spent his four years in the city in mourning.
The artist points to his 2005 inclusion in YBCA’s Bay Area Now 4 as a pivotal moment in his career. Thomas hung Priceless, an enormous printed banner (and his first outdoor installation), just outside the arts center’s entrance. It shows an image of a Black family at a funeral with MasterCard advertising language layered over their grief: “3-piece suit: $250; new socks: $2; 9mm Pistol: $80; gold chain: $400; Bullet: ¢60; Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.”
His practice now spans sculpture, video and photographic works, public installation and social practice. In all, Thomas challenges accepted generalizations of race, gender and ethnicity by mining historical images and popular culture. One of his most compelling pieces, Question Bridge: Black Males, is currently on view at the Oakland Museum of California. In the video, made with Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair, 160 Black men speak on sensitive topics (family, interracial relationships, community, education and love) with vulnerable honesty.