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Artist Hank Willis Thomas Debuts Monumental Commission at the Portland Art Museum

As part of the Brooklyn-based artist’s first-ever survey exhibition, the large-scale sculptural installation addresses lives lost to gun violence in America.

Presented by Portland Art Museum October 16, 2019

Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… is the first major survey of the work of one of America’s most important conceptual artists working today. Throughout his career, he has addressed the visual systems that perpetuate inequality and bias in bold, skillfully crafted works. Through photographs, sculpture, video, and collaborative public art projects, he invites us to consider the role of popular culture in instituting discrimination, and how art can raise critical awareness in the ongoing struggle for social justice and civil rights. 

At the exhibition entry point visitors will encounter an immersive installation titled 14,719 (2018). The large-scale sculptural installation recalls an American flag, with each white star stitched on a background of blue fabric representing a person who died from gun violence in the United States in 2018.

In addition to this original commission, the exhibition includes 90 works by Thomas that examine American ideas and ideals—from our fascination with guns and sports to how advertising affects our view of the world, to the civil rights movement and continuing efforts to dismantle racism, and other events that challenge our American dream that all are created equal.

“I believe every person has a ‘day of infamy’ in his or her life,” said Hank Willis Thomas. “Mine is Tuesday, February 2, 2000. This was the day I lost Songha Thomas Willis, my cousin, roommate, best friend, and, for all intents and purposes, big brother. He was shot dead, execution-style, in front of dozens of people during a robbery in which he did not resist. That day of infamy was a day of horror, but it was also a day of redefinition. The word ‘art’ means something different to me now. It offers a little bit of hope for answers, or at least poses better questions. I have struggled for two decades to find creative ways to deal with my cousin’s murder and the larger fascination with guns in our society. There have been more than 200,000 people killed by guns in the country since my family lost Songha. It is impossible to measure the magnitude and impact of this societal loss. While this installation is a memorial to the thousands of people who were killed by guns in 2018, it also pays homage to the countless loved ones who carry perpetual grief and trauma as un-acknowledged victims of gun violence in America.”

The many works included in All Things Being Equal… demonstrate Thomas’s inventive exploration of photography, advertising, and modern art and their many sociocultural ramifications. The exhibition groups works thematically to illuminate subjects that Thomas has treated with sensitive nuance throughout his career, including the human toll of gun violence, the impact of corporate branding and the commodification of individuals, and the ways advertising plays to myths and stereotypes of race. The exhibition also highlights Thomas’s investigation of archival images from many sources and how he has applied strategies of appropriating and reframing texts, images, and materials to connect historical moments of resistance and protest to our lives today as a call to continue moving toward greater social justice.

Community Partnerships

According to Ella Ray, Community Partnerships Coordinator at the Museum, much of Hank Willis Thomas’s work considers the relationships between objects and people, history and people, and objects and history. In an effort to continue this inquiry, community partnerships are central to All Things Being Equal.... Visitors will encounter a 250-square-foot Community Partners in Residence space within the exhibition galleries. The space will act as a home base for activating partnerships and creating opportunities for Portland communities to co-author experiences that prioritize the local response to the exhibition. Partners include: KSMoCA, The Numberz/ 96.7 fm,  Oregon Justice Resource Center, Portland in Color, Don’t Shoot PDX, We + Black (the Black affinity group at Wieden + Kennedy).

See the Exhibition

  • On view through January 12
  • Admission $0 - $20.
    • FREE: Kids age 17 and under are always free | free admission from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month | veterans and active duty military
    • DISCOUNTS: $17 for students and seniors | $5 from 5 p.m. – 8 p.m. every Friday | Arts for All $5 tickets | Learn more about other admission access programs.  
  • Miller Family Free Day, free admission December 14 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
  • Northwest Film Center Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal…Film Series October 12 – January 31