Strange Fruit: Interview with Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas latest body of work Strange Fruit expresses the historical truths blacks had to endure throughout their journey here in the United States. Hank created vivid comparisons of black perception between the pre-slavery era and post-Civil Rights Movement. The irony that drips and oozes from his canvas, visually gives a voice to those in history who didn’t have one. Hank’s symbolism exposes the role media plays in the down fall of our popular culture. This creative genius shed light on the method behind his madness.

Read writer Ilysha McMillan’s conversation with Hank Willis Thomas, exploring images from his recently released Strange Fruit body of work.

“…Popular culture influences the way we as a culture learn and perpetuate stereotypes about ourselves.”
– Hank Willis Thomas


Art Nouveau: Which piece came about first and what triggered you to develop that idea into your newest collection?

Hank Willis Thomas: My work is primarily concerned with popular culture, history, and race in America, and many of the pieces in this show are building on themes found in older work. I created the piece “Hang Time” over a year ago, but had always wanted to photograph more images for the series. The rest of the work is a meditation exploring this issue of African American’s complicated history with the noose. The opportunity to create a new body of work around these themes was given to me by the Corcoran Gallery of Art with support from Jack Shainman Gallery.

AN: Was there any research done before or during the making of this collection and if so, what did you spend most time on? Why?

HWT: Much of the inspiration for my work comes from history, and the ways cultural history is told. I spend a lot of time with archival materials, including texts, magazines, and images from the last 100 years. The most important book I referenced was Without Sanctuary.

Art Nouveau: What role do you believe the media plays in bringing to life the symbolism you used throughout your Strange Fruit collection?

HWT: Strange Fruit is a series of works that is questioning how the media represents and portrays black bodies, particularly with regards to their physicality. To me, popular culture influences the way we as a culture learn and perpetuate stereotypes about ourselves.

AN: What influenced you to use the graphics you did for the 4 hanging blacks in the “Martyr” piece?

HWT: Martyr: Lige Daniels, Aug 3, 1920, Center, TX, 2011

Martyr: Laura Nelson, May 25, 1911, Okemah, OK, 2011

Martyr: Unidentified Man, 1925, 2011

Martyr: Clyde Johnson, Aug 3, 1935, Yreka, CA, 2011

The “Martyr” piece includes images from documentation of lynchings that occurred across the southern states of America in the early part of the 20th century. 1940s. The photographs were distributed via postcards and collected as paraphernalia. I wanted to see what would happen if we were to place victims of lynching in the same way we treat martyrs and religious icons. We preserve them in churches windows with stained glass.

AN: What does the noose represent in our current society? What do you believe needs to get accomplished so that we can one day remove the noose from our around our throats?

HWT: I wonder what it means to you. I’m still investigating that myself. In some of the work in Strange Fruit, I was trying to reinterpret the noose–what does it mean when a black man powerfully and easily dunks a basketball through a noose?

AN: What are your views on the reoccurring NFL/NBA lockouts and in what ways do you represent your views in your recent collection?

HWT: I believe the lockout somehow brought about the rise of Jeremy Lin.