The difference between African American art and time machines used to be that one requires a participant to go back in time, but Hank Willis Thomas has changed all that.
Survivors of Bloody Sunday have a palpable memory of that violent day in Black history. They have explosive emotions in response to the terror that happened. Many Americans were violently beaten with whips and poles on this day while trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the Selma March of the Civil Rights Movement (Berkhalter 29). The nation watched the government take arms against its own people. Artist, Hank Willis Thomas, ensures that people who escaped the pain and horror of that day, also experience it in a personal way inside his African American art, Amelia Falling (2014). People who stand in front of Thomas’ African American fine art inevitably feel the pain of Amelia Boynton, a civil rights activist, who was whipped at the front lines while trying to cross the bridge. Black artists, especially Hank Willis Thomas, are impeccable in both recreating this tragedy authentically and expressively as well as incorporating the viewer’s individual feelings. Hank Willis Thomas uses material and composition to create a realistic, emotional, and personal experience.
Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) utilizes his background in African American art and direct affiliation with Black history to create emotional African American fine art works. Thomas is one of many Conceptual Black artists working out of New York City. Since the robbery and murder of his cousin in 2000, Thomas’ work has become increasingly fueled with the emotions African American victims of violence feel (Jack Shainman Gallery). Thomas’s realism and emotion come from his skills as an artist and his personal experiences.
Thomas’ Amelia Falling is a strong example of Black artists using African American art to transport the viewer to an almost tangible, definitely emotional event in Black history. Before the viewer is transported back in time they are in a space already charged with emotions of painful history, currently the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Inside the gallery with only sufficient lighting visitors find what appears to be a famous black and white photograph by Charles Moore (b. 1931) (Getty Images). In the center of the photograph Amelia crumbles like a house of cards after being struck with a whip in a painful and angular arrangement. Even the bunches in her jacket add to the drama as a person on each side of her tries to lift and support her. Upon closer inspection, the participant realizes that the fancy black frame actually contains a mirror with the scene printed on top of it. It is at this moment that the viewer realizes their own image inside the scene. As if seeing a fellow human being in such pain was not transformative enough, now the participant has to face the trauma as if it were happening right in front of them. Hank Willis Thomas offers a powerful transformation to people who participate in his African American fine art work that comes from a very real and emotional place in American history.
Hank Willis Thomas uses powerful and unique processes and materials to create African American art that transforms its audience with realism and emotion in Amelia Falling. Thomas chooses to print the image of Amelia falling directly onto a silvered mirror that is more like a crystal ball with the ability to transport those who gaze upon it back to a place of Black history. The reflective glass makes it seem that the audience is alive in 1965 witnessing with their own eyes the horrifying events depicted. Because of the mirror, the audience sees the tortured Amelia, the two anguished marchers running to assist, and, most importantly, themselves. It is as if they have looked at the historic scene through the crystal ball only to find themselves present and witness. Even the photograph intentionally left somewhat translucent when printed is an invitation to, not only witness the event with vision, but feel and experience the pain people there felt. The audience literally sees their image reflected in the faint photograph, and they feel the same as and they identify with the struggling activities. As the audience sees the image of Amelia and the image of themselves overlap, they can’t avoid feeling like they are one with the survivor. The translucent properties of the photograph are an invitation to become one with Amelia and feel her pain in exactly the same way she had not so long ago. The methods in which Thomas utilizes these materials transports and transforms the audience to an event that actually happened and that was saturated with horrific feelings.
There are, of course, more traditional but very concrete elements like composition, perspective, and depth also used to emphasize the realness, the emotion, and the relatability of this African American art experience. Hank Willis Thomas intentionally leaves out a piece of the compositional puzzle that is Amelia Falling. Clearly the top half of the composition is reserved for the integral reflected image of the participant. When a person gazes at the work, their reflection in the upper portion completes the work. More importantly though, a pyramid is visible when the work is completed by the reflection of the participant. The image of the three figures are invariable and may seem unintentional. But, Amelia, who is collapsing in the middle, hangs her head lower than the others. This arrangement leaves space for the variable, but inevitable reflection of the participant above the face of Amelia and between those of the other two figures. When all four figures are visible, a clearly intended pyramidal composition has been completed and other elements become clear. Perspective steals anyone who stands in front of the African-American fine art. Perspective in this artwork is created when the work’s composition is completed by the participant’s reflection; implied line from their head can be drawn to the figure’s head on the left, Amelia’s head, and the figure’s head on the right. These lines create a vanishing point that draw attention to the participant’s new placement and to the realization that the participant is now depicted in the scene. Depth also reinforces the strong credibility and emotion of the work. Though the photograph is partially translucent it still appears that Amelia and the two other figures are in front of the reflected participant when the composition is completed. This forced depth uncomfortably immerses the participant in the very real and incredibly painful drama. Though the work partially depends on what the participant brings to it, it is still based on a strong well thought out composition to create a realistic, emotional, and transformative work of Black history and African American art.
Those who gaze upon this African American art and other works by Hank Willis Thomas are not viewers, they are active participants in real events sodden with emotion. For example, the compelling African American fine art works the artist displayed in the All Power to the People exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California were portals past events in Oakland Black history. In the exhibit there were photographs of the Black Panthers. These photographs recreated real events in Oakland African American history. Patches of black and orange inmate uniforms inspired potent emotional responses. Even mirrors again made participants a literal part of the works. These very heavy processes, materials, and compositions created a sort of portal to the past just like in Amelia Falling. But, Amelia Falling encapsulates all these masterful elements in one striking African American fine art work. The print of Amelia being helped by her colleagues creates realness, and the composition and implied drama creates emotion. The translucent nature of the work however allows participants to experience the realness and emotion in the moment. Hank Willis Thomas changes viewers into participants by creating a realistic, emotional, and personal experience in his powerful work, Amelia Falling.
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