2020 was a very busy year for Hank Willis Thomas. For most artists, the peak of such a year might be the staging of a first major career retrospective, such as his presentation of ‘All Things Being Equal’ at the Cincinnati Art Museum this past autumn. But for Thomas, this was supplanted by his involvement in The 2020 Awakening, a new campaign launched by For Freedoms, the artist-led platform that he, photographer and political scientist Eric Gottesman and art producer/historian Michelle Woo launched in 2016.

Like many of For Freedoms’ other initiatives, The 2020 Awakening explores the way art and creativity can lift the lid on discussions around civic issues and shape the ideas, institutions and attitudes within American society. It believes in the power of creative collaboration to help reimagine the future.

Inspired by the Wide Awakes of 1860, a youth organisation formed by abolitionists who campaigned for personal freedoms such as free speech and free men, The 2020 Awakening seeks to build an open-source network of Wide Awakes – creatives transcendent of region and origin – by providing resources through its Infinite Playbook that empowers anyone to use their voice in support of the new four freedoms: listening, healing, justice and awakening. Simply put, anyone can be a Wide Awake. 

Portrait of Hank Willis Thomas for the Wide Awakes collective - photography by Jeff Vespa
 Jeff Vespa
Above: Portrait of Hank Willis Thomas. Below: members of the Wide Awakes collective (left to right: Helen Banach, Wyatt Gallery, Rob Sinclair, Claudia Bestor, Alixa Garcia, Hank Willis Thomas and Coby Kennedy). Photography: Jeff Vespa

Thomas’ efforts for For Freedoms are the latest additions to the long and respected career that he has forged by creating photography, sculpture, video and public art that have continually confronted ideas of inequality, discrimination and bias. 

Wallpaper*: Where are you as we speak?

Hank Willis Thomas: I’m at my studio. It’s actually in Gowanus now. I had to move [out of the Brooklyn Navy Yard] directly because of Covid. It was really complicated [to get in there] because they would only let one person in at a time. I’m now sharing with my friend [photographer] Justin Brice Guariglia and am just adjusting to being in a new place after being in the Navy Yard for five years.

Hank Willis Thomas, A Suspension of Hostilities, 2019. A red car nose down featuring the Confederate Flag on its roof
Hank Willis Thomas, A Suspension of Hostilities, 2019. (Kayne Griffin Corcoran)

W*: Which career moment will you never forget?

HWT: I did the largest collaboration that I’ve ever done in my life last year; For Freedoms, Wide Awakes and the 2020 Awakening. It’s definitely much bigger than anything that I could have ever imagined. I became more than ever before, part of a community: all the Wide Awakes and all the people in For Freedoms, and all the people who chose to see themselves as part of something bigger and generously shared their creative energy – that was really life-altering for me.

W*: How does the synergy between different creative disciplines bring about a bigger impact?

HWT: I don’t know how to describe it other than when people come together and just show up with generosity and an open heart, you feel empowered just by the sheer audacity and willingness of others to be part of something. I don’t want this to feel cliché, but there are no words to describe what it’s like to feel very much in a community.

W*: For Freedoms and the idea for Wide Awakes both predate the events that went on to define 2020. How did the timing of everything that occurred give your cause greater meaning?

HWT: We were forced to re-evaluate everything we did and how we did them in direct response to [the pandemic]. For me, it was a pretty profound reckoning where not only were we trying to do something really important politically, but we were trying to do it in a context of a pandemic, where people were triggered, afraid and angry. We wanted to try and infuse hope and love and joy into one of the most charged and potentially toxic moments in American history.

Wide Awakes march in New York on 3 October 2020
Above and below: the Wide Awakes march in New York on 3 October 2020. Photography: Benjamin Lozovsky

I had some weird foresight, a vision that there was going to be a need to tighten and expand our communities. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to recognise that 2020 was going to be an important year. It was time for a wake-up call. We kind of frantically gathered people back in January. We held a Congress [in February 2020] where we talked about a creative plan of action and recognised that artists have an essential and critical role in imagining a future that we want to live in. If we can’t envision it, we can’t make it real.

The weekend after that, everything shut down because of the pandemic. And so we went from this high capacity, frantic mode of work work work, to being in a more mindful and patient and still place than I think anyone has ever been in this century. For the first time in maybe 150 years, more of us were in a similar state of awareness to other people around the world than ever before. So, we recognise the fragility of every life that our privilege cannot protect us from. We all have to consider how our actions and the actions of others have a ripple effect, and the need to be mindful and intentional with how we engage in the world and with others.

And then with the events of May 25th and the murder of George Floyd, it was the sparking of a great awakening of the 21st century, where no one could deny the injustice, no one could ignore the brutality. No one could even pretend that it was even unique, and when you started to see people come out of their homes, out of their fear places and into the streets, not only in rage but also enjoined and in community. With people who have never spoken out before coming together and speaking, it was really exciting and we realised it was part of a zeitgeist. The culmination of George and the polls and the election, and the energy that was put into being not reactionary, but visionary, was really kind of awesome.

Wide Awakes march in New York on 3 October 2020
Wide Awakes march in New York on 3 October 2020
Photography: Benjamin Lozovsky

W*: As you said, these types of injustices aren’t anything new. What would you say made George Floyd’s murder a turning point?

HWT: Well, it was really that there was no distraction. It was at a time when sporting events were closed, and no one could go to the movies. We actually had to deal with the world that we lived in. That is really what I think gave it the opportunity because we had become so accustomed to being distracted.

W*: Now that the election is over, how do you remain hopeful knowing that the country is still so divided?

HWT: We’re in a binary system [with only two choices] and the binary doesn’t give us enough options to embody the complexities of each of us. It’s very easy to divide. Even the idea that we are divided is a product of the stories we tell ourselves. It’s not really as simple as ‘those people over there.’ Those people are us. I think it’s also important to acknowledge what’s been happening in Hong Kong, in Paris, in Nigeria. For the first time, we have to recognise that we are part of the world. This isn’t just an issue that’s happening in the United States. People are collectively addressing police brutality and injustices that are being enabled by the government. So now that we realise that, there’s a greater responsibility to participate, to imagine and to dream.

W*: Where does the work go from here, in your view?

HWT: It goes. It doesn’t stop. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for, as [the South African poet] June Jordan said. They call it the movement because it doesn’t stop. We have to abandon the idea that we will ever get to a place where it’s enough and it’s all good. We can and must embrace that the movement for equality and justice for all is not over until our lives are over.

Hank Willis Thomas outdoor public installation, Love Over Rules, 2017
Hank Willis Thomas, Love Over Rules, 2017. Courtesy Hank Willis Thomas and Sites Unseen Photography: Mariah Tiffany

W*: Which artists, writers and musicians have had the biggest impact on you?

HWT: For 2020, I’ll say: Alicia Keys, Swizz Beatz, Tariq Trotter aka Black Thought, because I work with them all. And then, Rashid Johnson, Sanford Biggers, José Parlá… I would just say For Freedoms in general. I mean, how many can I list? [laughs]

W*: What’s the most interesting thing you have read, watched or listened to recently?

HWT: One of the books I read last year was Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse. This idea of an infinite game being played just for the purpose of staying in a state of play, rather than a finite game, which is about winners and losers, has really been an epiphany for me as it’s relieved me of the need to feel like I’ve accomplished something. So that’s why we want to really empower everyone who sees themselves as creative to be civic leaders, because without art, without creativity, our species literally will not survive.

I also recently watched Small Axe, [the film anthology series] by Steve McQueen. It, and especially the second episode, is incredible. §

Hank Willis Thomas Branded Head, 2003
Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head, 2003. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York
Hank Willis Thomas, Unity, 2019, an original work commissioned by the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program
Hank Willis Thomas, Unity, 2019, an original work commissioned by the City of New York Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art Program, the Department of Transportation and the Department of Design and Construction. Photo credit: NYC Department of Design and Construction / Matthew Lapiska. © Hank Willis Thomas. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York