Hank Willis Thomas’ Politics of Sport
Hank Willis Thomas’ artworks have a reputation for critically commenting on the pressing issues of political, black, and social identity that continue to vex and provoke society today. The Beautiful Game at Ben Brown Fine Arts (5th October to 24 November 2017) examines the relationship between these and their wider social forces in relation to sport in a truly global setting.
Thomas' earlier works often spoke directly to the American, black experience. Branded Head (2003) presented the viewer with half of young man’s profile. His shaven scalp was branded—as in, formed of scar tissue—with the world-famous Nike logo. Thomas' comment, then, was on the ongoing commodification of bodies and black experience. Similarly, From Cain’t see in the Morning til Cain’t See at Night (2011) appears to show the ‘snap back’ with an American Football player facing off against a crouching cotton picker.
If Branded Head and Cain’t see in the Morning till Cain’t see at Night are American in setting, then the fiberglass cricket bats that comprise Endless Column II suggests a more global perspective on the intersections of sports, identity, and politics. It is, of course, an homage to Constantin Brâncuși’s Endless Column (1938) which commemorates the ‘endless’ sacrifice of Romanian soldiers in World War I. Thomas’ Endless Column invites the viewer to consider whether there’s something in common between the playing and battlefield. In doing so, perhaps the artist is suggesting that sport is sought to supplant war. Additionally, in utilising a sport with no clear connection to either Brâncuși’s Romania or Thomas’ America, we are invited to consider the issues as universal and not isolated.
The connection between war and sport is scattered throughout Thomas’ work. Hand of God, a fiberglass model of Maradona’s handball goal in the 1982 World Cup, intimates the event’s geopolitical context in the Falkland’s War; Our Enemies Are Like Fish Caught in Dragnet, That is, Easily Captured depicts battling Asafo (warriors from the Fante region, Ghana) appearing to be sponsored by football club shirts worn in the style of traditional warrior flags. While some would see the shift from war to sport as a positive, Thomas sees the problems it brings with new forms of oppression. The image of the Asafo figures as lowly and primitive is brought into the present as they wear modern football shirts, connecting the colonial past with the plight of modern Africans.
The idea of the West’s historic and current relationship with Africa permeates the exhibition. The Nightmare of the White Elephant, Verve, and The Sword Swallower are all direct reimaginings of Matisse’s Jazz series (1947), itself influenced by African sculptures. Thus Thomas seeks to demonstrate the dance of art as it bounces between cultures and the value of it doing so. Yet the most striking series in the exhibition is the Stuart Davis inspired quilts: Champion (White), Switchski’s Syntax, and Visa. Rival shirts nestle into one another, forming a celebration of how sport offers an escape to a better life. Yet, it is deceptive. Few reach that professional stage; many are exploited by the promise of it.
Tackling such grand topics in a compact space forces a focus on the specific field if the subjects are to be fully explored. Most of the exhibition uses football as the vehicle for his message, but it is not exclusively so. This creates an issue when other sports are used, as Thomas raises topics without exploring them further. Cricket’s inclusion is natural given its historic relationship with imperialism. However, it has markedly different international interactions that football. This relationship is raised then left unexplored. Similarly, we are largely left to our own devices to consider the differences or similarities between rugby and football’s global impact.
To understand why, we must consider whether the exhibit as art is improved or diminished by their presence. The focus of the works of an artist such as Thomas is so often on the message that they are supposed to convey, that the fundamental aesthetic element is often downplayed or ignored. Endless Column II and Endless Column III are simple, yet pleasing, pieces. Their presence is unobtrusive. They complement the other exhibits without dominating them. This relative softness of touch accentuates the message of the overall exhibition as it draws the audience in. In doing this and turning away from his provocative tendencies, Thomas shows that he does not feel the need to drag the viewer along with him; instead, he trusts us to follow and we do.