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December 11, 2023

BMA exhibit depicts age-old themes through modern art

By NATALIE BERKMAN | September 23, 2009

At a modern art exhibit, the first thing that typically comes to mind is an image of abstract images - art that looks like the artist threw the paint at the canvas, some chopped-up photographs rearranged in a mess or sculptures that look as though a child made them out of Play-Doh.

However, the Baltimore Museum of Art's newest Artist-in-Residence program showcases the surprisingly comprehensible, relatable and educational work of Hank Willis Thomas.

Hopkins alumna Christina Mattin, class of 1975, generously supports the newly-founded Artist-in-Residence program. The first participant in the spring of 2009 was Renee Stout.

The aim of the program is "to engage the greater Baltimore community in a substantive dialogue around the interlaced issues of art, representation, identity, stereotype and race." Thomas certainly has that focus in his art.

Born in 1976, Thomas studied photography and Africana Studies at New York University and received an MFA in photography as well as an MA in visual criticism from California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

After the death of his cousin, he began to use his art to explore stereotypes of black males and also the power of language in order to question concepts of racial identity.

When a BMA visitor walks into the modern art section now, he is faced with 20 paintings displaying variations on the "I Am A Man" theme from the 1968 Ernest Withers photograph.

The original picture, taken the day of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, portrays striking sanitation workers with matching signs proclaiming, "I Am A Man."

Thomas' variations on this reflect what he has noted as a change in the theme.

"When I grew up the phrase wasn't 'I am a man' - it was 'I am THE man,'" Thomas said.

In 20 years, he noted that this theme had changed from a "collective affirmation of all of our humanity to this kind of, more selfish, boasting kind of statement of 'I'm the man, you are less than me.'"

His liquitex on canvas proclamations vary from "I Am A Man" to "A MAN M.I.A" and also includes changes to portray women.

A favorite of the visitors is "White Imitates Black," a 2009 lenticular in which the words "white" and "black" change places depending on where the viewer stands.

On the wall next to this optical illusion is "The Day I Discovered I Was Colored." This is a reproduction of an image from a 1961 issue of Negro Digest. It portrays a white boy explaining the issue to a black peer.

For Thomas, this image returned him to a moment in his own past when he had asked a friend why African-Americans were called black when their skin was brown.

His friend, Bayeté Ross-Smith, answered, "Yeah, but they call us 'black' to simplify it. It's more direct." This particular piece is from his most recent exhibition, "Pitch Blackness."

"A Place to Call Home (Africa-America)" displays the continent of North America connected to Africa. Next to this piece of polished aluminum, there is a particularly powerful piece entitled "Hang Time Circa 1923."

This portrays the Jumpman logo from Nike's Air Jordan ad campaigns hanging by a noose from a tree.

Thomas uses this image of the logo to create a play on words; "hang time" refers to the time a player remains in the air after jumping to make a shot in basketball, but "hang" refers to lynchings.

"By employing the ubiquitous language of advertising in my work," Thomas claims, "I am able to talk explicitly about race, class and history in a medium that almost anyone can decode."

The final element of the exhibit is a four-minute film of the murder of Thomas' cousin in a bank robbery.

He uses G.I. Joe figures as the characters in order to portray the last five minutes of his cousin's life. It's a simple game of child's play except that in real life his cousin was never able to get up and play again.

As a whole, anyone can understand the modern art of Hank Willis Thomas because every piece in this collection has an obvious purpose. Not only does it appropriately match the goal of the Artist-in-Residence program, it will most certainly force viewers to think about the links between art, race and identity.

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