‘Race is a myth’

A fam­ily mur­der re-en­acted by toy sol­diers, gi­ant afro picks, foot­ball as war­fare … Tim Jonze meets Hank Wil­lis Thomas, the provo­ca­teur-in-chief of Amer­i­can art

The Guardian - G2 - - Arts -

For some peo­ple, foot­ball is a mat­ter of life and death. But for Hank Wil­lis Thomas, much like Bill Shankly, it’s far more im­por­tant than that. Yes, on an aes­thetic level The Beau­ti­ful Game, his first solo UK show, is a riot of colour and en­ergy: daz­zling patch­work col­lages of Pre­mier League foot­ball tops; totem poles of rugby, foot­ball and cricket balls in­spired by Ro­ma­nian sculp­tor Con­stantin Brân­cuși; a soli­tary leg per­form­ing a midair bi­cy­cle kick that in­vites you to hear the gasps of a non-ex­is­tent crowd.

But Thomas is also at­tempt­ing to start a con­ver­sa­tion about what the game rep­re­sents. Be­yond the shock of see­ing Liver­pool and Manch­ester United jer­seys snug­gled up next to each other, co­op­er­at­ing in the same colour scheme, you’re also asked to ex­am­ine the web of cor­po­rate spon­sor­ship lo­gos and ex­pen­sive play­ers from across the globe, and to ques­tion the con­tra­dic­tions that un­der­pin Bri­tain’s na­tional sport.

Who is re­ally mak­ing the money? How many peo­ple’s dreams and labours come to noth­ing so that a se­lect few can suc­ceed? And why are we so de­ter­mined to pick sides?

That last ques­tion con­fronts you the mo­ment you de­scend the stairs into the gallery – to be greeted by a hand pro­trud­ing from the wall push­ing a foot­ball. This is a recre­ation of Maradona’s in­fa­mous Hand of God goal, which helped Argentina knock Eng­land out of the 1986 World Cup, out­rag­ing Eng­land fans and leav­ing a wound that has yet to heal.

“Foot­ball is of­ten a proxy for war,” says the 41-year-old artist from New York as he guides me around. “So if you think of the Falk­lands war” – which took place four years be­fore the Hand of God – “this piece speaks to that colo­nial­ism, to how the rules of a game can be changed, and how im­por­tant it is to win at any cost, even when you’re al­ready the best. All of these ques­tions play out on the foot­ball field. On one level, sport is about local com­pe­ti­tion. But it’s also about in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion and cor­po­rate com­pe­ti­tion. There’s a lot of stuff clash­ing.”

Thomas is also weav­ing a nar­ra­tive about art his­tory with his quilt­work foot­ball tops, which recre­ate iconic works: Verve, from Matisse’s jazz se­ries; Stu­art Davis’s proto-pop art piece Visa; and the asafo war­rior flags cre­ated by the Fante peo­ple of Ghana. These works, he says, were part of the back-and-forth con­ver­sa­tion be­tween Euro­pean and African art that took place around the first half of the 20th cen­tury fol­low­ing coloni­sa­tion.

With such a tan­gle of ideas, even Thomas ad­mits the show is about start­ing con­ver­sa­tions rather than con­clud­ing them. That’s some­thing he’s proven adept at. Last month, his sculp­ture of a gi­ant afro pick, topped with a black power fist, was in­stalled in Thomas Paine Plaza in Philadelphia, just me­tres from a statue of the di­vi­sive for­mer mayor Frank Rizzo. “I can see

On Amer­ica un­der Trump: ‘I think things have never been bet­ter – be­cause if you can’t point at the prob­lem, you can’t ad­dress it’

it’s provoca­tive but you hope ev­ery work of art you make is provoca­tive,” says Thomas, who wasn’t re­spon­si­ble for the sculp­ture’s po­si­tion.

Thomas’s ear­lier work ap­proached things from a more per­sonal – although no less po­lit­i­cal – an­gle. In 2000, his older cousin and role model Songha was shot dead dur­ing a mug­ging in Philadelphia, in what seems to have been a com­pletely sense­less mur­der – Songha was ly­ing face down in the snow when he was shot. Thomas de­cided to con­front it as an artist, recre­at­ing the killing us­ing GI Joe fig­ures for Win­ter in Amer­ica, a 2005 col­lab­o­ra­tion with Kam­bui Olu­jimi. An­other piece from this pe­riod, Price­less #1, dis­plays a pho­to­graph of mourn­ers at Songha’s fu­neral, over­laid with the text: “3-piece suit: $250. 9mm pis­tol: $80. Pick­ing the per­fect cas­ket for your son: price­less.”

“I guess there’s an irony in it,” he says. “For me, wit­ness­ing my aunts in the fu­neral home, there was the $7,000, the $2,000 and the $500 cas­ket, and then ask­ing them­selves the ques­tion, ‘Do I love him more if I buy the $7,000 one?’ Even in mourn­ing, we’re still be­ing mar­keted to.”

A fas­ci­na­tion with ad­ver­tis­ing runs through much of Thomas’s work – most no­tably in his Un­branded se­ries, which stripped the words from old ad­verts to re­veal the dam­ag­ing ways black Amer­i­cans and white women were be­ing sold to the pub­lic. Shorn of con­text, the stand­alone im­ages showed women in bor­der­line porno­graphic poses, or black men re­duced to crude stereo­types. A 1978 ad for Blue Bon­net mar­garine fea­tured heavy­weight box­ing cham­pion Joe Frasier wear­ing the tit­u­lar bon­net, por­tray­ing him, Thomas said, as a “mammy fig­ure – a slave car­i­ca­ture – which makes us think of Aunt Jemima.”

Re­cently, Thomas has been us­ing this mar­ket­ing nous in a more di­rect man­ner. In 2016, he helped set up For Free­doms, the first artist-run su­per

PAC (po­lit­i­cal ac­tion com­mit­tee). In the lead-up to the US elec­tion, the

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