On the Road with Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas reports back from the recent Aperture West Lecture Series tour to celebrate the release of his monograph Pitch Blackness.
Your mission should you choose to accept it is to give three lectures, in three days, in three different cities. We will be sending Christina Caputo from the Aperture Foundation to escort you. We will be watching you. Be sincere, be compelling, and most importantly – sell your book. This email will self-destruct in 5 seconds….
Well okay, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but Mission Impossible would describe the feeling I had when I thought about giving back-to-back-to-back public lectures at important art institutions for my Aperture West lecture series. Especially when I realized that my talk on Thursday, October 2nd at the Hammer Museum in LA would coincide with the Vice-Presidential Debate. And then again, when I realized that my talk for Photo Alliance in SF the next night would be competing with three major art-related events in the Bay Area. Who would come? I had visions of me walking into a dark auditorium to be greeted only by a few friends and the organizers. I was also pretty nervous because I had never spoke about the book in public, and it is such a personal project. I was worried that I would sound inauthentic after repeating myself everyday.
To my great surprise, I couldn’t have been more wrong about anything. When I arrived in Seattle, Christina Caputo had arranged a television news interview with CBS KIRO. The jitters began then. I realized the conundrum of my work. Here I am doing press for a book which in large part talks about the way that marketing manipulates viewers. And to make matters more complicated, the major selling point of the book is that the work came out of my cousin’s murder. I do believe the work is good and I am making it for earnest reasons, but I am always given pause when I find myself in situations where my cousin’s murder is cache. I am trying to make sure that he and other young men are not forgotten, but there is a thin line between memorial and exploitation in this case. We all know that violence sells in America. So far, I have managed to stay on this side of memorial – but I am relying on family and the audience to keep me honest!
After the TV spot, which will air in January, we walked around Seattle and set off to the Henry Art Gallery at University of Washington. I was still working on my presentation while Director Sylvia Wolf was introducing me. That became obvious to everyone when it flashed across the screen. Then Christina, practically a stranger at the time, came up to the mic and on tip toes read an awesome intro which referred to me as one of the most important artists of our generation (or something like that). To which I thought, “then how come I don’t feel it?.” Well, no matter what I was thinking, when it came time to talk about the work I practically became possessed! All of a sudden this sense of poise came over me and I spoke incredibly well about the influence of my mother, Deborah Willis, on my work, and I flowed into the book and onto other projects almost as if I had been reading a well-written script. When it was over, I could tell the the audience was engaged and affected by my words and my work. And even stranger than that, I felt like they knew me really well! It’s weird to make a career of bearing your soul to strangers, but I guess that is what most artists do. The books sold out, the chief curator Elizabeth A. Brown gave us a quick tour of the awesome Richard Misrach show they were installing, and we went to a great dinner with a few friends.
The next morning, we flew out to Los Angeles, checked out the Steve Turner Gallery and a couple of exhibitions at LACMA. I was really nervous that night because I didn’t know who would come to see me talk during one of the most anticipated debates in history. To my surprise, there were over 80 people there and more than a few of my closest friends, even a few collectors. I don’t know if I had ever spoken in front of that many good friends about something so personal. I knew they knew what I was thinking, so I felt extremely self-conscious. I had to be on my Ps & Qs. I was really nervous when I started out; I couldn’t really get my groove. I was really overwhelmed because I realized how much of my life and career was influenced by these peers, roommates, and long-time family friends. I was totally distracted throughout my talk and visually upset at certain parts. When the film project, Winter in America, was showing, I had to really talk to myself before I lost my full composure. On the other side of it, I felt more comfortable and confident. I was so proud and honored to have a chance to share myself, my work, my hopes and dreams with so many people. During the book signing, I was overwhelmed with the support of people who came. Many purchased more than one book and the book store sold out. The line of people came up to me with love, criticism, support, and and admiration. I signed books and felt for the first time like an author.
Sweet home San Francisco was the final leg of the tour. I arrived at the San Francisco Art Institute for the pre-talk dinner hosted by PhotoAlliance and got to talk to students, staff, and board members. For the first time, I actually felt comfortable in my new role as professional artist. I was happy to share my book with peers and prepared briefly for the lecture. I tried to change it up each night just enough to keep myself on my toes. Carla Williams gave a 15-minute presentation on photography books and pointed out the dearth of books that featured or were authored by African Americans. She highlighted the rarity and pointed out that the success of this project is an integral part of maintaining the legacy and visibility of black photographers. With that heavy burden and even more teachers, friends, and loved ones in the audience, I walked up and gave what felt like the most clear and articulate lecture about my inspiration, my hopes for work, and the reason that I believe it was important. For the first time in a while, I was actually really proud of myself, and had this vague sense that I could make a difference.
In addition to the Aperture West lecture series, I also went to Oakland School for the Arts and talked to 230 high-school students on October 8. Although I spoke for about an hour, the student body was fully engaged, many of them came and talked to me afterwards. They were even patient through my technical difficulties. After the talk, I had an hour long Q & A with the visual-arts students. It was amazing! There isn’t a more scary experience than talking about something personal to teenagers. But these kids got it. The were thoughtful, sensitive, challenging, and engaging. I am so thankful to have these opportunities. I would never have known this book would have such an impact on me personally and be so influential in refining my voice. Wow.