Hank Willis Thomas: ‘The slave era is not something that is in the past’

·6 min read

“We the People.” “Liberty.” “Justice.” Words spelled out in quilted Daedalus-like mazes, in the new exhibition Another Justice: Divided We Stand, at the Kayne Griffin gallery in Los Angeles. All are associated with the ideals of the United States, revered like the stars and stripes of its flag. But stamped within the Liberty quilt is the word “inmate”. Capital, a green and white quilt, mirrors the stamp. Composed from prison uniforms and repurposed American flags, the quilts display the discordant harmony sewn together by capitalism and racism.

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The new exhibition by Hank Willis Thomas, Another Justice confronts a great American hypocrisy: freedom in “the land of the free” is predicated on the incarceration and enslavement of populations deemed less valuable by America’s hegemony. Through massive labyrinthine quilts and human-like sculptures, the exhibition interrogates the gossamer presented by American ideals against the grimy reality many Americans live day to day.

“The thing about America: liberty, justice, equality are all terms that come to mind but, for millions of Americans throughout its entire history as a nation, that has never really been true,” the artist told the Guardian. “Looking at prison uniforms and recognizing that the stripes in the uniforms have the same size stripe as many American flags, I couldn’t help but make that correlation between the stars and bars and the bars that people live in all around the country.”

Willis Thomas explores enslavement and its legacy in his work and, though the exhibition deals with incarceration, he insists it is not a deviation from the subject. “The slave era is not something that is in the past. It’s something that we are actually living in today,” Willis Thomas explains simply. Though the institution of slavery was abolished in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th constitutional amendment, the amendment allows for involuntary servitude to continue “as a punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”. According to the World Prison Brief, the United States incarcerates about 639 people per 100,000 people, which is widely reported to be the highest rate of any country in the world. This exorbitant incarceration rate is often viewed as an extension and the modern evolution of chattel enslavement.

Another Justice looks at how incarceration, like slavery, is sewn into the fabric of the United States both metaphorically and literally. Cotton, picked from the hands of enslaved Africans and African Americans, became a symbol of oppression, now worn on the backs of their descendants, who are trapped into the same peculiar institution. “To me, from a conceptual perspective, it’s very much about, yes, the fabric of our country, which is cotton, the fabric of our lives. So many of our ancestors, and then, people today of African descent, have a very unique and specific relationship with it. But also, [it’s] about having to navigate the complexity of our history and our present,” Willis Thomas said.

Though the United States outwardly values Enlightenment age exemplars, it is the dubious actuality which inspired Willis Thomas to create Another Justice. “It really started with me finding these prison guard patches at a flea market, [with] some of them being very beautiful. I just started thinking about how complex our society is, where keeping people behind bars is a business and it’s a business that certain people take pride in and certain people make a lot of money off of,” Willis Thomas said. He added: “I made these mazes to remind myself and others of the complicated pathways we have to navigate to get to walk these ideals.”

This paradoxical paradigm emerges in the exhibited pieces, with one quilt adorned with hopeful stars and another sewn with stripes reminiscent of prison bars. One piece, composed entirely of stripes from the American flag, is inspired by a photo in which former president Donald Trump stood at the border fence, Willis Thomas says.

“Most people have an opinion about the criminal legal system, the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex, law enforcement, [and] punishment. Most people have an opinion, whether it’s ‘Burn it down!’ or ‘Give it the most money you can possibly give it to keep it going!’ and everything in between,” Claudia Peña, director of For Freedoms, the artist collective and non-profit co-founded by Willis Thomas, said. The organization collaborates with artists of marginalized backgrounds to imagine and reimagine a better future for America.

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Across from the Kayne Griffin gallery, the organization installed a billboard that tackles the issue of justice for indigenous people. Peña continued: “I think, when you look at a piece of art that was made by repurposing old prison uniforms, you necessarily have to think about your opinions. And standing in front of [this] art, you kind of have to interrogate your opinions a little bit too. It forces you to have a conversation with yourself or perhaps the people that you’re looking at the art with and to make sure, ‘Is this still what I think? Or, do I think something different?’”

Though many are cynical about art’s potential to change political conversations, Peña, a transformative and restorative lawyer, believes art is a medium which holds the power to convert and alter. “When grassroots organizations or community organizations are attempting to do any consciousness-raising work – and that’s how you refer to educating communities about the issues they face and potential solutions – what everybody reports is that sharing statistics and data is not very compelling for people. But storytelling is. People are very interested in storytelling … Storytelling has been a basis of how we understand the world around us and art is nothing but storytelling.”

Peña, a grassroots organizer herself, noted she was not immune to disdainful attitudes when she began organizing. But her own personal journey helped her realize the power of art in political conversations. “I’ve been very moved and inspired to dig more deeply about my own convictions by art that poses questions and art that challenges the black and white nature of political work.”

Willis Thomas hopes for a similar reaction from those who view the exhibition. “As an American, I have been trained to love the flag. I have been trained to believe in its values. But as a human being, as an African American, I have been forced to ask these questions. The show is much more about questions than it is about statements.”

  • Another Justice: Divided We Stand, at the Kayne Griffin gallery in Los Angeles

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