‘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
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
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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