By Jess Grimshaw
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Hank Willis Thomas, a visual conceptual artist from New York, hunched forward in his chair on the podium platform, his head resting in his hand with the elbow supported on his upper thigh.
Thomas was exhausted, but he still took questions from Towson University students and faculty members who had just sat through a screening of part his film, “Question Bridge: Black Males” in the school’s West Village Ballroom.
“Sorry that I’m a little low energy, right now,” Thomas told the crowd of roughly 60. “I just got back. I was in South Africa yesterday and just flew over.”
Thomas, 39, is a photographer, sculptor, mixed media artist, and filmmaker. Since receiving degrees from New York University and California College of Arts, his work has taken him around the world.
In addition to the Goodman Gallery in South Africa, his work has been featured in the International Center of Photography, Galerie Michel Rein in Paris, Galerie Henrik Springmann in Berlin, The Museum of Modern Art and The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, The Baltimore Museum of Art, and The National Gallery Museum of Art in Washington.
Thomas also has permanent installations at The Oakland Museum of California, The Birmigham-Shuttlsworth International Airport, The Oakland International Airport, and the University of California, San Francisco, in addition to having participated in the Sundance Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival.
Thomas’ work focuses heavily on race, history and pop culture representations. Some of his work with sports themes are a juxtaposition, showing a metaphor for both “the triumph of the human will and having resolve in yourself, but also mass exploitation of the body primarily coming from slavery,” Thomas said.
The film, “Question Bridge: Black Males,” which Thomas collaborated on with Chris Johnson, defines black male identity in America.
The film focuses on black men of different ages as well as different geographic and educational backgrounds. They ask one another questions about what is means to be a black man and answer each other with their own unique perspectives, starting a real dialogue while debunking some of the myths of race.
One of the men in the film asks why crack is so glorified within African American culture, with some startling answers, while a young child wants to know what it means to be a man.
The men openly share their life experiences and views on the world. At times, their responses evoke laughter and at times the hard truth about life produces a chilling effect. There is a clear message that everyone is just trying to get by in the world as best they can with what they were given.
Thomas explained during the Q-and-A that he and his movie partner wanted viewers to understand that the film is not about black men, it’s about people.
Thomas said he and his collaborators wanted to put a diverse group of black men on the same playing field in conversation without pretext.
According to Thomas, his parents taught him at an early age that you “cannot judge a book by its cover,” and said that as a photographer, he is always aware that there are more things going on outside of the frame.
His mother, Deborah Willis, Ph.D., is also a photographer, author, and curator of African-American history. Thomas said her work taught him that history is full of grand parallel narratives. Most of what we know is a simplified rewritten image of what the (white) people in power at that time wanted to portray.
Thomas said there were African American photographers in the later half of the 18th Century, proving that there were educated and cultured African Americans then and not just the stereotypical black men with brut strength that are associated with slavery and portrayed by history.
“Europeans created blackness, we are all shades of brown,” Thomas said. “We are all what we choose to be first. Are you a man first or are you black first? We all have 1,000 identities and we can present ourselves as who we want to be to people.”
Although Thomas is a celebrated modern artist whose work was even featured on pop-icon Beyonce’s website during Black History Month, he said that he wants to be remembered as a person first and understands that being a role model is as much about listening as it is about teaching.
“I always try to elevate the person’s humanity first rather than labeling it or blackening it,” Thomas said. “I’m really interested in trying to find ways that if I die, I’m highlighted for my humanity, not because I’m black.”
Anee Korme, associate director of the Center for Student Diversity at Towson, who held the event recently, said that she first saw “Question Bridge: Black Males” when it premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York in 2013 and found it inspiring.
As Towson education and philosophy students approached in groups to give their thanks and shake hands after the event, Thomas, though jet lagged, gave each their turn.
He posed for pictures, signed copies of his books they had bought from a table at the back of the room and asked the students questions about their lives – his curiosity about people and humanity evident.
Thomas was off to Atlanta after the Towson event. He was scheduled to host another book signing and contemporary discussion on “Question Bridge: Black Males,” this time alongside his mother.
There is little rest for the soft-spoken man sharing his vision with the world. He leaves Towson with one final reflection.
“The biggest lesson I’ve learned in life is I don’t know what’s going to happen next,” he said. “I don’t know how strong I am, how to acknowledge my weakness, but through vulnerability I’ve found ways to transcend my weakness and make myself stronger.”