"My goal with the work is to employ the familiar, or what-goes-without-saying, to draw connections and provoke conversations about issues and histories that are often forgotten or avoided in our commerce-infused daily lives." —Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas is the winner of the first Aperture West Book Prize, an initiative announced in January 2007 to raise awareness of photographers based in the American West. For the first winner, the selection committee opted to highlight an emerging artist, Hank Willis Thomas, whose first monograph, Pitch Blackness (Aperture, 2008), was published as a result of the award. Willis Thomas gained wide recognition with his highly provocative series B®ANDED, which addresses the commodification of African-American male identity by raising questions about visual culture and the power of logos.
Willis Thomas's work grapples with issues of grief, black-on-black violence, the contributions of corporate culture to the crises of black male identity, and African-American representation in advertising and media. René de Guzman writes of Willis Thomas in her contribution to Pitch Blackness that he "is most closely aligned with the pioneering African-American artists of the 1970s and '80s, such as Carrie Mae Weems and Deborah Willis (the artist's mother, who is also an acclaimed photographer, scholar, and curator), and his immediate predecessors Lorna Simpson, Glenn Ligon, and Kara Walker." Some have categorized Willis Thomas's work as belonging to the "postblack" genre, where racist stereotypes are reinterpreted or reconstructed. With his characteristic pointedness and dark humor, Willis Thomas creates a visual dialogue about the pressing issues of race, representation, and a sort of present day enslavement-through-consumerism as it applies to African-American youth. Willis Thomas's work is heavily informed by the tragic loss of his young cousin, Songha Willis Thomas, who was murdered by another black man outside a Philadelphia night club in an incident of violence involving a gold chain, an event the artist credits with helping him find his "artistic focus."
Hank Willis Thomas (born in Plainfield, New Jersey, 1976) received his BFA from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, and his MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from the California College of the Arts, San Francisco. He has exhibited in numerous galleries and museums, including the Studio Museum in Harlem; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut; Leica Gallery, New York; and National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.