Artist Hank Willis Thomas on His Art, His Inspirations and Consumer Culture

Visual artist Hank Willis Thomas recently spoke at length about the inspiration behind his mixed media work and his philosophy as a creator at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.


“We need to have these signifiers and need to have these reminders. It isn’t enough, but it is something that we have to do: Make claim and remind one another that we can put things out in the world and hopefully inspire others to do great things.”


Thomas grew up in Philadelphia and sparked a discussion with his sculpture All Power To All People, an eight foot tall Afro pick that stood prominently in Paine Plaza almost two years ago as a part of the Mural Arts’ Monument Lab project. All Power To All People is now featured in the front window of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.


A viral video on The Root documenting people’s responses resonated with Thomas deeply. “This video was a peak in my work because as artists we rarely get to see people’s responses to our work, “Thomas said. ‘For me, it was such a gift to find that online.”


With its proximity to a statue of controversial former Philadelphia police commissioner and former mayor Frank Rizzo, observers have viewed Thomas’ pick as a political statement, although that perception is not totally in line with the sculpture’s original inspiration.


“My piece wasn’t conceptualized for that context and I’m not sure that I would’ve wanted it to be ‘there’ [near the Frank Rizzo statue], but for me it was inspired from something from my childhood: the Clothespin by Claes Oldenburg,” Thomas said. “My family’s from North Philadelphia and my grandmother was a beautician. I have very strong memories as a child of having a metal tooth comb with a fist in it stuck in my head and yanking the curls out.” 


“Somehow in my mind when I would look at this clothespin, this idea of an Afro pick also seemed like something that also should be put out into the world because it’s also an everyday object to many members of the African American community,” Thomas explained. “I didn’t see in the work that we often see in public space, images and objects that represent that aspect of our history, but also the ordinary history of African Americans, especially in Philadelphia.” 


For Thomas, an Afro pick was subversive in helping redefine the way Black people look at societal norms of beauty. “My family has been here [in Philly] at least 80 or 90 years,” Thomas said. “My mother and my father met here. [It had me] thinking about how everyday people’s stories become part of a larger narrative. My mother talked a lot about how important it was to grow up in a beauty shop, because being in a beauty shop she got to hear older women tell stories and share wisdom, but also it was a place where people came to become or make themselves beautiful, and especially as African American women in a society that was telling them they weren’t beautiful was very much an act of defiance.”


Thomas’ mother Deborah Willis is an award-winning photographer, researcher and author. Her work also played an integral role in shaping his perspective as an artist. “My mother points out in her work when studying photography that at the time, people didn’t really know of any African American photographers,” Thomas said. “About ten years after I was born, her first book was published. Part of what her work did was show another aspect of the Black experience. She says in a book that we forget that it’s an oxymoron to be Black and beautiful and that beauty is a place that’s political and was fought for and continues to be.”


With his work appearing at some of the biggest museums locally and nationally, Thomas is aware of his stature in the art world, yet does not consider himself above reproach. “I have a lot of contradicting thoughts about [where the money comes from in museums],” Thomas said. “There’s a really exciting time for cultural critique and I think the people doing it should be emboldened to go as far as they go. I also come from a nihilistic perspective that all money is dirty and that the construct of money is incredibly problematic.”


“Even with all of these institutions being as well-run as they are today, every inch that we’re standing on is land that was gained through genocide,” Thomas said. “The work that I do, I’m not absolved because I participate in the system of commodity culture by selling art, buying Nikes and Apple computers where you don’t have to go back too far to find children in the Congo that are working in mines to take the pieces of the cobalt out of the ground for computers. I have to take responsibility for that because even though I’m not the producer, I still participate in the system.” 


Thomas is steadfast in his effort to use his work to critique himself and the world in which he lives. “My interest is to try to critique the system I participate in, hopefully continue to critique myself and ultimately hope encourages us to grow as a society as a result of that, Thomas said. “Even though it sucks when you’re the one getting the heat, I don’t think a lot of us would be inspired to change and grow if someone wasn’t putting the heat on us.”



Lead photo courtesy of