It was the famous collector from Miami Mira Rubell who first told me about Hank Willis Thomas. Born in 1976, he’s a talented American artist dealing with popular culture, gender and racial stereotypes in contemporary consumer society, and the perception of ‘African Americans’ today.
I visited his studio in New York a few weeks back – a small space in the middle of Manhattan teeming with the bustle of several members of staff. In Thomas’s most interesting series to date – which can be found in the Rubell collection – he repurposes old and explicitly sexist adverts where the female body is used to promote different items. Ironically, in the street right outside his studio, a billboard for Stuart Weitzmann that must be 10m tall adopts this very practice of linking consumer products to ‘selling’ bodies.
Hank Willis Thomas also plays with his own image through self-portrait holograms in black and white that make him appear and disappear in different forms.
In addition he is one of the stakeholders in ‘In search of the truth’, a utopian, sprawling and seductive installation project. Moreover, it’s one that resonates particularly well at the present time, right in the middle of the campaign trail for the next US presidential elections and the violent confrontations arising from Donald Trump’s populist rhetoric.
The project is led by Hank Willis Thomas – who, it quickly becomes apparent, is housing the team running it – along with his collaborators Ryan Alexiev, Jim Ricks and Will Sylvester. At the heart of the installation is an inflatable video booth designed to look like a cartoon bubble with the word ‘Truth’ printed on the side.
The project’s objective, meanwhile, is a global consultation on a fundamental theme: the truth. What is the truth? For whom?
The Truth Booth has already travelled throughout Ireland, to Afghanistan and South Africa, and the aim now is to tour it in all fifty US states.
The idea is for people to share their own personal truth in a maximum of two minutes on the website and on an Instagram account.
You can hear one Chicagoan talking about how the city needs to find a new mayor, while another explains how 500,000 people are in prison because they cannot get together a minimum bail. In Ireland a man in his forties declares that whoever professes to know the truth is a liar. Elsewhere a young woman with her head covered declares: the truth is that I’m in the national boxing team of Afghanistan and I want peace for Afghanistan.’
Finally, turning the table on the questioner, I asked Hank Willis for his truth, and he was taken aback:
‘In search of the truth’ is running a Kickstarer campaign to raise money so it can continue its US tour: www.insearchofthetruth.net