How the Artist's For Freedoms Project, with Eric Gottesman, is Changing Political Discourse
by Rebecca Carroll
ISSUE No 4
Hank Willis Thomas creates art that is searing and brilliant, visually compelling, and intellectually challenging. In one way or another, all of his work addresses race, ethnicity, and racial identity, and the politics therein. An aesthetic activist and a spectacular anomaly, he is constantly evolving and finding new ways to break open what it means to be an artist. To that end, he launched “For Freedoms” together with photographic artist and organizer Eric Gottesman. The initiative invites artists to create multimedia work based on the theme of American democracy, and to engage in the political discourse at large. Ostensibly, the Super PAC* was created specifically with the 2016 US election in mind, but its themes, the dialog it hopes to provoke, and the art it inspires will remain relevant long after the next president of the United States is elected.
When you have a multi-ethnic person in the White House, it changes what the status quo is.
Is your artist Super PAC especially important given how racially charged this 2016 US election has been?
Hank Willis Thomas: I think every political season offers a new opportunity for artists who are socially engaged to express themselves and effect the country in a new way. What we’re trying to do this time is to actually use the government’s political structure to make a kind of complicated critique, which implicates us in the problem.
As divisive as the election has been, there’s no question that we are experiencing an era of black cultural ascendancy. Since Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, people are looking at, talking, and thinking about blackness and race in a way we’ve not experienced. Have black visual artists set that tone for this cultural ascendancy?
HWT: All visual artists have done that—the difference is that audiences have been forced to pay attention to voices they’ve ignored for a long time. The way in which President Obama has made it okay for people to be both American and enjoy elements of what they might call black culture, or also to confront or resist it, that’s what’s newer. When you have a multi-ethnic person in the White House, it changes what the status quo is. In that way, a lot of creatives—people in various industries who are of African descent especially—have benefited from this really simplistic one-to-one that people make: “Oh, a ‘black President,’ let’s have a black CEO, let’s have a black artist’s show, let’s listen to these artists who are redefining blackness.” Maybe people have been doing all these things for decades, but the fact that President Obama has been our President for the past eight years has made it harder to ignore aspects of the community he aligns himself with.
So you attribute this moment in time more to Obama than to the last two years of black activism since Ferguson?
HWT: Imagine what would have happened if Ferguson happened under George Bush. Well…it did happen. The reality is that people are hyper-aware of what it means when African American young men are being killed at a disproportionate rate. That’s nothing new, just that we’re talking about it is new.
You are friendly with and work with the actor Jesse Williams, who gave a great speech when accepting his Humanitarian Award at the 2016 BET Awards. Much was discussed in the aftermath about how we haven’t had black actors or celebrities come forward enough. It does strike me, though, that we are still leading the charge. That it still falls on our shoulders to call for accountability. Do you find that too?
HWT: That depends on what you mean by leading the charge.
Eric Gottesman: Also depends on who you call “we.”
Hi Eric, and by “we” I mean black folks.
HWT: I don’t personally agree with everything Jesse said, but what’s amazing is that we saw an authentic expression, and the strongest, clearest argument for the necessity of Black Lives Matter that has happened in the media. I agree about the “we” leading the charge. It tends to be on those who are oppressed to be the ones who have to fight for their freedoms. EG: One of the things we’ve talked a lot about [with For Freedoms] is how the categorization of things—whether it’s liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, white or black, Red or Blue—all those categories are there for certain reasons. Things like the two-party system are in place because the potential for better, more complicated systems is often criticized as being potentially unstable.
So the figuring out, the complications and complexities, that’s part of the art?
HWT: Yes. I think we see a lot of these things—straight and gay, black and white, pro-choice and pro-life—as a divide and conquer strategy. If you’re fighting for this side, you’re fighting to beat that side, and nobody wins in that. And if anybody wins it’s the people who created the system, not the people who are fighting. We call ourselves For Freedoms. We’re actually saying we’re for all of the freedoms, even the ones we don’t like or agree with. If we actually believe in this American, utopian notion of freedom it has to be all inclusive.
So For Freedoms is ultimately a celebration, or an inquiry, or a movement? Or all of those things?
EG: All of those things. The Four Freedoms** that were set out originally were these four principles that FDR wrote. In our case, just as with the Super PAC as a vehicle itself, we are both embodying and interested in those things. As well as criticizing and questioning and stretching them out.
Hank, has any of the work you are making or commissioning or collaborating with impacted your life on a personal level?
HWT: All of it has. I see myself as part of a larger much more complicated movement. My creativity has expanded ten-fold by seeing how these amazing artists work and touch hearts and minds.