Hank Willis Thomas at CCA's Hubbell Street Gallery, with Sharon Daniels' 'Amends / Civil Death.' Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED
Hank Willis Thomas at CCA's Hubbell Street Gallery, with Sharon Daniels' 'Amends / Civil Death.' (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

Talking With Artist Hank Willis Thomas About Political Struggle

Talking With Artist Hank Willis Thomas About Political Struggle

About a week ago, I found myself standing next to Hank Willis Thomas, the world-renowned conceptual artist who built a career by creating pieces that critique aspects of race, pop culture and politics.

I first heard about Thomas through his series of images that place aspects of slavery—chains, nooses and cotton—next to different athletes in action, a cold depiction of the similarities between the two institutions. I'd also seen Thomas' image of a Nike swoosh logo branded upon a bald African-American person's head, binding the company to a socio-political statement much different than the one Nike projected with Colin Kaepernick earlier this year.

And just about two years ago, Thomas co-founded (along with artist Eric Gottesman) a hub for artists like him; a platform for "creative civic engagement, discourse, and direct action" called For Freedoms. Currently, the group is leading actions, conversations and exhibitions all across the United States, including at California College of the Arts' Hubbell Street Art Gallery in San Francisco, where Thomas and I stood side-by-side last week.

We both wore headphones, plugged into a small screen mounted on a wall. On the monitor, Beverly Henry, an African-American woman who spent 40 years in California prisons, sat holding a full-sized American flag.

Beverly Henry in 'Pledge,' a work of video art by Sharon Daniel.
Beverly Henry in 'Pledge,' a work of video art by Sharon Daniel. (Josef Jacques)

Henry told us that during her time in prison, she earned 65 cents per hour sewing flags. As she talked, she used a seam ripper to unstitch the flag, at times using her bare hands to disassemble the materials.

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“It would be nice," she said while pulling the flag apart, "if undoing the injustices was as easy as this.”

Thomas took off the headphones and exhaled. “That’s deep,” he said solemnly, before continuing his walk around the gallery.

The video, Pledge, is a part of Sharon Daniel’s Undoing Time installation, which takes an artistic approach to exposing injustices in the American penal system.

Daniel’s installation also includes an actual American flag draped from the ceiling, inscribed with quotes taken from constitutional amendments, and overlapped with testimonies of people whose rights have been violated. There’s also a series of red caps in the style of Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" hats, but these ones are embroidered with statistics instead of slogans.

“It really comes down to these two hats that Sharon produced,” Jaime Austin, the gallery’s director of exhibitions & public programs, told me. “These all have different statistics about felon disenfranchisement. This one says 418,224 black former prisoners couldn’t vote in Florida in 2016," Austin said, pointing from one hat to the other, "and Trump’s margin of victory was only 112,911 votes. That’s why this matters, because this is a form of voter suppression.”

'Undoing Time,' by Sharon Daniel.
Part of 'Undoing Time,' by Sharon Daniel. (Josef Jacques)

Daniel is just one of a number of artists whose work is part of CCA’s Take Action exhibition, running through Nov. 16. The pieces range from the somber to the humorous: the Center for Tactical Magic's Universal Keys—a wall sculpture of real handcuff keys—shares the space with 100 Days Action's People's Oval Office, a mock oval office made of cardboard in which people are encouraged to draw up their own executive orders. The orders are then posted on a wall not too far the desk; the one that spoke to my heart simply read, "More Unicorns."

Along with being able to demand more fictional animals, attendees are invited to fully participate in the art. There's space for people to pick up cards that suggest doing political actions outside of the gallery, from simple acts, like saying hi to their neighbors, to more rigorous ones, like defending DREAMers from deportation.

Meanwhile, across the nation, For Freedoms partners continue to host town-hall chats, create billboards and register people to vote.

'The People's Oval Office,' from 100 Days Action.
'The People's Oval Office,' from 100 Days Action. (Pendarvis Harshaw/KQED)

In September, the San Jose Musuem of Art hosted "Future Supper," which was both a meal and a public reading. In October, UC Berkeley and SFMOMA hosted an event about data and the political landscape called "Hacking Politics." And this past weekend, the Oakland Museum of California just finished showing the work of Chris Johnson, "A Question of Faith," which juxtaposes images from the Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange with quotes from Theodore Parker, the American Transcendentalist.

For those of us who aren't planning on hitting an art gallery or museum anytime before midterm elections, it's OK: you might see the art during your daily commute. Just a few Muni Metro stops from the new Warriors stadium in San Francisco, artist William Scott's billboard is mounted above Third Avenue at 22nd Street.

William Scott's billboard above San Francisco.
William Scott's billboard above San Francisco. (Barry Schwartz)

“Collaboration, in itself, is amazing to see happen,” For Freedoms’ Program Manager Emma Nuzzo told me. Although Nuzzo doesn't consider herself an artist, bringing together over 300 creators and 200 institutional partners from across the nation is a testament to the art of organizing.

Nuzzo was in the gallery with me and Thomas as we discussed this project and where it fits into the current state of politics.

"It’s great to be able to be a part of the conversation on how people can be involved in 2018," said Thomas, a CCA graduate and the college’s first to be awarded the Creative Citizenship Fellowship. "But it isn’t just about picking a simple side. It's about being informed."

He alluded to some of the art on the wall as way to get informed, specifically Stephanie Syjuco's "Free Text" installation, which features tear-away tabs of papers that have URLs, guiding people to free downloadable copies of books—titles such as The Activists Cookbook, The Age of Intelligent Machines and The New Jim Crow. "What we want is free generosity and exchange in recent art. I’m just excited to be part of it all,” said Thomas.

When asked what success looks like, Thomas told me, “Until you’re dead, you can never be complete with the work. There’s that saying ‘the struggle continues,’ and in various political struggles and movements across the world, it does. The problem is, just when you think the work is done... that’s when the work really starts.”

I hear him on that. There was a widespread idea that we reached the zenith when President Obama was elected, which Thomas cautions against.

“People thought the work was done in 2008," Thomas told me. "That might’ve been when the real work began.”

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'Take Action' runs through Nov. 16 at CCA's Hubbell Street Gallery. Details here. The gallery also hosts a free live viewing of election results on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

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