Beyoncé Boosts Artist Hank Willis Thomas for Black History Month
The superstar singer gives a nod to a black artist confronting race.
Check out Beyoncé’s website right now and you’ll get an eyeful of the work of New York artist Hank Willis Thomas. There’s a slideshow of the artist’s sculptures, photographs, and interactive projects, which frequently confront issues of race head-on. The images flash by within a graphic of a picture frame adorned with a plaque reading “Black History Month.”
“It was definitely shocking,” Thomas told artnet News. “A friend texted me the link, and when I saw it, I thought, it this really her website?”
Thomas and Beyoncé had a friend in common, he explained: the singer’s photographer, Yosra El-Essawy, was a friend of Thomas’s. She died of esophageal cancer at age 33 in October 2014. Egyptian-born El-Essawy had documented the Egyptian popular uprisings as well as having been a wedding and event photographer before joining Beyoncé’s team. The singer highlighted El-Essawy in a video on her YouTube page.
“I feel like my friend is pulling some strings for me in the afterlife,” said Thomas. “It’s all quite surreal.”
Prominently featured is a Thomas sculpture that depicts black men with their arms raised in the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture that has become a staple of protests against police violence and institutionalized racism. The sculpture got particular notice at last year’s Art Basel in Miami Beach fair, where it was installed in Jack Shainman’s booth. It happened to be on view in the wake of a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict officer David Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was killed while being arrested for selling loose cigarettes (see After Ferguson, A New Protest Culture’s Challenge to Art).
One video on Beyoncé’s site is devoted to the twelve black men who sang with her during her performance of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” on the 2015 Grammys. The men talk about their experiences of hostility and even harassment by police officers, and their hope that the song’s message will comfort black men.
“It was very touching to see that she and her team are paying attention to these issues,” said Thomas.
Another slide shows the “truth booth,” a giant inflatable speech bubble with the word “truth” emblazoned on the side. Inside the booth, which is a collaboration with artists Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks, is a video camera that allows visitors to create a two-minute-long video in which they deliver a monologue starting with the words, “The truth is.”
“Everyone in America is a cultural hybrid,” reads one image in the slide show, quoting the artist.
“I definitely didn’t see that coming,” the artist said on Instagram last night when he posted an image of the singer’s website, adding the hashtag #neverforgettosaythankyou.
Thomas said that Beyoncé showed great compassion for El-Essawy and her loved ones.
“The most famous woman in the world is giving me a shout-out, but she also helped to make something that was incredibly painful for all of us a little bit easier,” he said.
Though it’s not featured on the singer’s homepage, Thomas’s work Question Bridge—a collaboration with Chris Johnson, Bayete Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair—is one of his best known. The online video project is billed as “an opportunity for Black men of all ages and backgrounds to ask and respond to questions about life in America.” It has appeared at museums including the Brooklyn Museum, San Francisco’s Exploratorium, and New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.
It’s not news that Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z are art enthusiasts and collectors. Jay Z took to Pace Gallery in the summer of 2013 to shoot a video for his single Picasso Baby, from the record Magna Carta Holy Grail. In it, he rapped to one VIP guest at a time, inspired by Marina Abramović’s performance at her MoMA exhibition “The Artist is Present.” (The video shoot gave rise to persistent rumors that Jay Z was doing a “durational performance work.” He was not.) The couple also recently lit up Instagram with a portrait taken in front of the Mona Lisa during a visit to the Louvre (see Beyonce and Jay Z Pose with Mona Lisa).
For previous coverage of Thomas, see Hank Willis Thomas Focuses on Black Beauty and Hank Willis Thomas’s Burning Man Adventures Burn Up Instagram.
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