Artist Sews Together Sports and Geopolitics

Artist Sews Together Sports and Geopolitics


Mr. Thomas worked with his associates in his airy studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, cutting out soccer symbols and names for a series of quilts, based on “the function and aesthetic of Asafo flags, which have been made from the colonial period to today by the Fante people of Ghana, developed in relation to African contact with Europe starting in the 18th century,” according to the notes from the Ben Brown gallery.

The quilts incorporate techniques used by Picasso and Matisse, who were influenced by African art and symbols. Mr. Thomas points out that the Asafo flags borrowed symbols from the western invaders and colonists — yes, even the Union Jack — in their own military flags, to intimidate rival tribes.

Mr. Thomas’s interest in the overlap between sport and national interests also shows in his sculptures of a powerful-looking arm or an implement like an oval rugby ball or a flat-faced cricket bat.

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Benjamin Berry, left, production manager for Hank Willis Thomas Studio, and Mr. Thomas with “The Sword Swallower,” a quilt by Mr. Thomas.

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Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

His eclectic references are also seen in his sculpture “Endless Column, 22 Totems”with 22 painted resin soccer balls, stacked on top of each other and pointing toward the sky — which will be on display in the annual summer exhibit in Frieze Sculpture Park in Regent’s Park in London through Sunday.

Mr. Thomas and Ben Brown said that the work was inspired by Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column,” which celebrates the survival of Romania, the artist’s homeland, after World War I.

Social issues are never far from the surface. Mr. Thomas, 41, has sometimes used photographs of American athletes who spoke out.

“I can’t ignore that there were very many other people active in civil rights, but Jackie Robinson not only integrated baseball but was also part of a World Series team here in Brooklyn,” he said. “It changed the world, right?”

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A bulletin board in Mr. Thomas’s studio.

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Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

He expressed admiration for Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback who refused to stand for the national anthem and is out of work, and noted that athletes are part of the national conversation. “They’re not supposed to be political,” Mr. Thomas said. “They’re supposed to do their job. They don’t get paid for speaking. If Ali, if Jim Brown, if Paul Robeson hadn’t spoken, what would the world look like?”

Mr. Thomas’s work often suggests the dangers hiding behind the rewards and fame of sport. One of his photographs depicts a noose looming just above an athlete about to dunk a basketball.

“Strange Fruit,” he said, invoking one of Billie Holiday’s trademark songs, about the frequent image of lynching victims.

His blend of art and political awareness reflects the influences of his life. He said his father, Hank Thomas, has been “a physicist, Black Panther, jazz musician and film producer.” His mother, Deborah Willis, has a doctorate from George Mason University and is a professor and chairwoman of the department of Photography & Imaging at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, where Mr. Thomas did his undergraduate work.

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From 2017, “Only God Can Defeat Us,” a mixed-media piece that includes sports jerseys.


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Hank Willis Thomas, via Ben Brown Fine Arts, London

He was a student at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, where he became interested in what his mother does, but he said he wanted to be “more than a photographer.”

Much of his work about violence and black lives alludes to his mourning of his cousin, Songha Willis, a former basketball star at Catholic University, who was murdered in a robbery attempt outside a nightclub in Philadelphia in 2002.

In an interview in early 2009 in NY Art Beat, Mr. Thomas said that his earlier work, “Winter in America” and “Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake,” came after his cousin was murdered “and after years of trying to find out creative ways to talk about issues that were related to that for myself.”

Mr. Thomas recently married Rujeko Hockley, an assistant curator at the Whitney Museum, whose mother is Fadzai Gwaradzimba of Zimbabwe, the assistant secretary general for safety and security at the United Nations, and whose father is Trevor Hockley, an Englishman who roots for West Ham of London. (The Hammers’ distinctive colors, claret and blue, are among the team references in one of Mr. Thomas’s quilts.)

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Mr. Thomas uses sports equipment like balls or a flat-faced cricket bat in his art.

Credit
Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Mr. Brown, in a telephone interview in mid-August, praised Mr. Thomas for adhering to an artistic tradition while examining the powerful presence of sport in today’s society.

He had seen Mr. Thomas’ work at New York’s Jack Shainman Gallery, which has been handling Mr. Thomas for over a decade. When they met, Mr. Brown suggested a London show with a sports motif.

“I don’t think there is much overlap between art and sport,” Mr. Brown said, referring to the artists Damien Hirst (with his love of snooker, a form of pool) and Jeff Koons (who often uses basketballs and other sports objects) and Andy Warhol (whose informal Polaroid photos of sports stars were recently included in Gail Buckland’s well-received show, “Who Shot Sports,” at the Brooklyn Museum).

“You don’t see much of it,” Mr. Brown said, musing that sports stars should be patrons of the arts. “I don’t know what the footballers do with their cash,” he said, referring to wealthy people from “finance, hedge funds, the dot-com world. But sport is very rare.”

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A detail of Mr. Thomas’s sculpture “Endless Column III,” with painted resin soccer balls stacked on top of each other.

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Hank Willis Thomas, via Ben Brown Fine Arts, London

However, Mr. Thomas is hardly tailoring his work to depict the glory of sport. More likely, he is suggesting the athlete, however wealthy, is just another rower in the galley.

“Sport can also be seen as a proxy for war,” Mr. Thomas said. “And it’s not a coincidence that the World Cup came around at the same time as colonialism. A lot of football clubs in England were part of the Industrial Revolution because workers needed some kind of leisure time.”

One of Mr. Thomas’s firm ideas is put in his low-key, thoughtful way: “Art gives clues about our values in society. Art is timeless. Your art will outlive you.”

He added, “I believe all art is political. I certainly believe all sports are political. Not only because of the amount of money spent. You have to pay attention to it.”



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