‘I See Everything as Connected’: Watch Hank Willis Thomas Pull From Sports, Civil Rights History, and Roland Barthes in His Works

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the "Art in the Twenty-First Century" Season 11 episode, "Bodies of Knowledge," 2023. © Art21, Inc. 2023.

Growing up, artist Hank Willis Thomas recalls, adults would always scold him for “asking too many questions.” They’d also admonish him, saying, “You’re not supposed to stare at people.” Now, of course, both asking questions and studying others are fundamental to Thomas’s work as an internationally renowned artist whose work spans photography, installation, sculpture, and painting.

Thomas’s work touches on themes ranging from social justice to pop culture, as evidenced in two of the artist’s most high profile projects. In January, the artist made headlines with the unveiling of The Embracea two-story tall bronze sculpture based on a historic photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King, hugging after King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, installed on Boston Common.

Just weeks later, he debuted Opportunity (Reflection) (2023), a 10-foot-tall public sculpture of an outstretched arm holding a football, commissioned by the NFL for this year’s Superbowl.

In an exclusive interview filmed as part of Art21’s brand new season of the flagship show Art in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas noted, “I like to balance the spectacle element of sports with the context of history and politics.”

Thomas’s first show at Pace Gallery—titled “I’ve Known Rivers” after a Langston Hughes poem—opens on July 15 in Los Angeles. For Art21, he describes drawing inspiration from specific moments in visual culture. While reading Camera Lucida, the seminal 1980 text by Roland Barthes, Thomas was drawn to Barthes’s definition of the punctum—seen by Barthes as “the thing that pierces you, the thing that sticks with you in the photograph.” For Thomas, that particular spark comes from a range of source materials.

His 2014 sculpture Raise Up, depicting a series of torsos with their hands raised, was originally conceived by Thomas drawing on different sources: the image of a Harlem Globetrotter standing with his arms raised in front of the Statue of Liberty, and the important photographs by the Black photographer Ernest Cole of coal miners during apartheid. But it debuted in the United States shortly after the Ferguson, Missouri murder of teenager Mike Brown, when “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” became a rallying cry, giving it a new meaning. 

I see everything as connected,” Thomas tells Art21, “so if I’m making work about coal miners or Ferguson or basketball, frankly, a lot of the bodies are connected through this history of oppression… What I took from photography was incredible knowledge and experience of how to look critically at the world, at myself.”


Watch the video, which originally appeared as part of Art21’s series Art in Twenty-First Century, below. “Hank Willis Thomas: I’ve Known Rivers” is on view at Pace Los Angeles from July 15–August 26, 2023.

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between Artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of news-making artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship series Art in the Twenty-First Century is available now on PBS. Catch all episodes of other series, like New York Close Up and Extended Play, and learn about the organization’s educational programs at Art21.org.

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