Over the past decade, the community of artists of color who retell American history by remixing and repurposing its archives has reached fever pitch. From Derrick Adams’s inventive adaptations of politically-charged designs by black fashion pioneer Patrick Kelly, to Firelei Báez’s reimagining of Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party to grant women of color their rightful seat at the table, artists are resurfacing visual languages from the past to comment on contemporary socio-political culture. Notably, these temporal investigations and reclamations also serve to uplift the long lineage of African-American changemakers who are all too often omitted from the archives altogether.
In this way, archives—which find home in our public institutions, private residences, and online—have come to embody sites of radical imagination. Now more than ever, artists are critically engaging the cultural objects, ideas, tools, and ephemera that have shaped—and take the shape of—our inherited past. Celebrated conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas has long tapped the well of popular media images, illuminating trends in American consumption across socio-cultural spheres, and prompting us to take stock of our investments. In What We Ask Is Simple, Thomas turns to international activism, sourcing iconic protest photographs from “libraries, historical archives, and years of online research,”1 to undergird this impressive new body of work.
It’s difficult to recount the experience of viewing these works without first describing their odd context—dimly lit galleries with wall signage that, in what might be an art historical first, actually encourages flash photography! While light is well understood to erode the surface qualities and archivability of an artwork, Thomas presents a series of polydimensional screenprints on retroflective vinyl whose formal qualities are markedly enhanced by iPhone torches and light beams. If you are a science novice such as myself, retroflective materials are typically used to increase the nighttime conspicuity of something or someone—a poetic metaphor for drawing meaning out of the dark, or illuminating a subject who might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Once aglow, these seemingly abstract images pull into sharp focus, foregrounding historic African-American change agents—such as Shirley Chisolm, Dorothy Counts, and Gloria Richardson—amidst the metallic, painterly brushstrokes. As the viewer moves around and between the works, heightened levels of detail emerge.
Thomas forges an alternative universe in this exhibition, whose rules of engagement center black protagonists, and activate technology as a political device for reframing historical narratives. The more time spent free-falling into the depths and dimensions of works such as I Am an American Also (flash) (2018) the less simple one’s questions become. For example, in We want equal—but...(II) (2018), how is it possible that white figures can emerge from black space, and black figures from white space, all within the same frame? And what does this transposition say about the historical assumptions that have been projected onto the binary construction of race in this country? In this moment of questioning I became hyper-aware of the role technology has played—both then and now—in helping to right, write, and rewrite the history that contextualizes the archive.
As I riffed on the conceptual intersections of archives, activism, and the American dream—and imagined the now-digital archives of protest imagery we create every day—the myth of American progress felt more real than ever. From Facebook Live videos of black men, women, and children slain in broad daylight, to viral tweets of videos depicting police brutality against unarmed civilians, technology has become increasingly important in documenting social injustices and holding oppressors accountable. And it, like archival memory, is fortified by collective use—#blacklivesmatter, #sayhername, and #itcouldhavebeenme have become tragic yet vital repositories of personal images that help us to collectively remember those we’ve lost.
In works such as Four Little Girls (blue and white), Pledge, and Power to the People / I'm too Young to Vote (black and gold)—all 2018—I was struck by the hope and heartache I felt as I encountered images of children advocating for an equitable future that has yet to come. I wondered how the brave and resilient young people pictured engage the struggles of America today, and grew angry as I traced the waves of so-called change spawned by the 20th-century movements Thomas so powerfully re-postures. And for a brief moment, the writer and the artist in me joined as one to proclaim that the narratives we construct bear the same cultural weight as the images that capture them. For those like Thomas who dare to engage the complex, conceptual terrain between the fact and fictions of history, archives—in both their analog and digital forms—become a powerful medium, that empowers artists to author distinct and fresh accounts of what was, what is, and what might become.
Taken from a conversation with the artist on 18 April 2018.