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New Bell Gallery exhibit transcends photography to highlight social injustice

Works by renowned artist Hank Willis Thomas highlight past and present racism in America

Bronze arms protruding from bare white walls and multiple projections playing simultaneously add a new dimension to the photographs in Hank Willis Thomas’ exhibit, “Primary Sources.”

In the exhibit, which opens Sept. 11 in the David Winton Bell Gallery, Thomas strings together historical artifacts of America’s ongoing struggle with racism and discrimination. He assembles them in new ways to create his own “primary sources” that describe today’s social conflicts, “using them to point out and strengthen the message in those works,” said Jo-Ann Conklin, director of the Bell Gallery. “Thomas draws our attention to things we know about but don’t pay attention to,” she said.

Thomas is renowned in the art world for his photographs, and his work has decorated museums including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City. His pieces transcend the passive experience of looking at a static photograph, as he “pushes the boundaries” of the well-worn medium, said Alexis Lowry Murray, curator of the Bell Gallery.

“It’s in your face, and it’s an instant part of your reality,” said Jennifer Avery ’16.5, a monitor at the gallery.

Entering the Bell Gallery, viewers will notice that the walls are anything but flat. Along one side, bronze sculptures of drowning men recall a more classical approach to art and reflect a disturbing image of human solidarity in suffering. Beside these sculptures, a large plastic button proclaiming “KEEP THE FAITH BABY” in bright Pop Art-like text offsets the exhibit’s heavy themes with a message of hope.

In creating three-dimensional pieces, Thomas makes “an object that isolates those gestures, brings them to focus more completely,” Conklin said.

Viewers who follow this wall end up in a dark room, with video clips of people including acclaimed writer James Baldwin and various news reporters speaking about the struggle against racism, past and present. Though some faces flicker in black and white while others are from newscasts of recent events, the voices form a united chorus that demonstrates how racism in America remains unchanged.

“He’s taking things Baldwin was saying in the 70’s and juxtaposing them with current events, and it seems like nothing has changed,” Conklin said, adding that this piece is her favorite in the exhibition.

The Bell Gallery’s curators chose to display Thomas’ work because he shows a “real commitment to social justice,” and his art is “accessible and legible to a variety of audiences,” Murray said. His work also demonstrates an artist’s power to raise awareness about social issues, she said.

The exhibit also features seemingly traditional photos that, upon closer examination, reveal hidden messages in their play with different media. A pair of portraits of silicone, fiberglass and metal finish called “Amandla” feature a black youth carrying chairs away from a blaze and another carrying an inverted American flag in his fist. Though the subjects hold the realism of a photo, their backgrounds are glossy, ill-defined spaces that reflect the viewer’s gaze. This technique highlights “our own relationship to history and the civil rights movement in the U.S.,” Murray said.

Beside these portraits, two bright white paintings hang side by side: One portrays an American flag in the wind, while another shows a single man in a vast blank space. Scenes of violence are projected behind the proud flag, and an overwhelming crowd is projected beside the lone man.

“It’s emotional and intellectual at the same time,” Avery said. “It affects the body and the heart and the mind all at once.”

The exhibit opens Friday and runs through Oct. 25.


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