Hank Willis Thomas: Zoe, it’s been so great working with you this election season on For Freedoms, the artist-run Super PAC that Eric Gottesman and I created earlier this year. You were one of the first artists we asked to come on board. Your work is both unabashedly political and personal, so it can speak to a multitude of issues on many levels. Thank you for taking this journey with us. This project with Jemima Kirke came almost out of nowhere. I remember brainstorming with you about one thing, and the next thing I knew we were talking to W's Diane Solway about creating a political campaign poster.
Zoë Buckman: Hank, thank you for giving me the opportunity to work with you. I'm so inspired by your art practice and by what you're doing with For Freedoms. During many of the politically-motivated conversations we've had, you've expressed the notion that it is better to start conversations, not arguments, with our work. I’m struck by how the concept of community and inclusion is deeply rooted in your work. You produce shows and projects that come solely from you and your mind, and yet you also embark on collaborative projects, oftentimes giving other artists a platform that they wouldn't have been able to get alone. This commitment to a communal practice, in tandem with the work you do alone, is something that goes against the stereotype of the navel-gazing, self-obsessed, tortured artist. Where do you think this came from? What are some of the challenges you face in having such a multi-faceted practice?
Thomas: I'm not sure I'm any less self-obsessed than anyone else. I think I just see myself as integrally connected and dependent on other people, many of whom I don't know. My art practice is an attempt to get to know myself (i.e., "Them"). Muhammad Ali said, "Me, We." I have modified it a little to say: “Us is Them and They are Us.” So my practice in its various forms allows me to communicate with many aspects of myself through different approaches.
With this project for W, what do speculum eyeglasses mean for you? Why did you feel we needed to work with another artist (Jemima in this case) to bring this work to life? How do you feel this work could be misinterpreted?
Buckman: I've been working with surgical gynecological instruments for a while, powder-coating them and creating sculptural entities that feel somehow more appealing and yummy than the cold harsh metal we're used to seeing. This work was my response to the attacks on Planned Parenthood (both legislative and physical). It angers me deeply that a woman's access to free sexual health care, as well as her right to choice, is constantly being threatened in the U.S. I believe that women are in fight mode right now, and I was speaking to Jemima about it. I admire her on so many levels — as a mother, artist, friend, actor... she's also really funny and fearless. When W proposed that you and I make a campaign poster for a faux political candidate, I knew Jemima would be up for creating a character. The glasses came out of the idea that we need a politician who, amongst many other things, can really see women and see the world through the eyes of one, but to also give the ad an absurdist quality. We are in a ridiculous situation, and the very notion of a political advertisement is in itself pretty obscene.
Critical thinking and discussion is very much part of what we're aiming for, so misinterpretation is fine with me if it leads to discourse. Sometimes I worry that the artwork we make is preaching to the converted... do you share this fear ever? If so, what do you do about it?
Thomas: I used to, but then I adjusted my lens. I think we, I mean all humanity is in constant process of "conversion." New ideas are like viruses, they spread quickly from person to person. This can have positive and negative outcomes, probably both simultaneously. Most progressive change comes as a result of creative thinking. Naturally, people more prone to conserving are resistant to this. We fear we will lose our innocence or worse if we embrace something new. I think there is something valuable and noble in conservative agendas, because they are always fighting a losing battle. Progress is inevitable. The challenge for progressives is that their work never stops, either. The road to "Progress" is always under construction. Every time we reach a new mile marker, we have to acknowledge that there is even more work to be done.
Buckman: What does it feel like to have gotten married this autumn, and taken such a beautiful and personal step forward in the context of this election and the political climate of 2016?
Thomas: It is really exciting, actually. I only wish my wife was an American so she could vote, but then again her international identity forces me to think of everything in the larger global context. I am both scared and optimistic about the things that have finally been unearthed. A lot of things that we are now finally opening up about in public have been seething below the surface for decades, if not centuries. Now that the doors for discourse have been opened, no matter how ugly, I think we can finally begin to address some deep-seated problems in our culture and our political system. Getting married is a pretty big head trip because the assumption is that we will be together no matter what is to come, hell or high water. In light of what we have learned and continuously ignored about the environment, we might actually be expecting to face both. That is very scary, but I think I have the right shipmate.
Buckman: I was incredibly cynical about becoming a citizen. We are in the midst of a national disaster here in the U.S., and then Brexit (the worst thing to happen to my home country since I've been born) became a reality. I felt like a total fraud taking the pledge of allegiance in the spring given how defeated I felt. And then something truly moving happened when I was sworn in: An elderly female African-American judge overseeing the ceremony made a speech that was truly uplifting. It was a call to action. She told everyone in the room that even though none of us were born in the U.S., we have as much right to be here as anyone else, that no one can take that right away from us but that it comes with a serious responsibility: To vote. I felt excited in that moment to be living here at this time. There's also something liberating about realizing you're at such a low point. All that's left is to act.