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Hank Willis Thomas

My Life is Ours
Ben Brown Fine Arts
Hong Kong
Sep 20 – Oct 27, 2018
Valencia Tong

American conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas is known for examining issues of identity, race, intolerance and protest. For his first solo exhibition in Asia, at Ben Brown Fine Arts, he reinterpreted archival photographs he found of protests in Hong Kong and mainland China from past and present to highlight theuniversality of recurring themes of oppression across history.

The artist also explores the notions of materiality and audience engagement, deliberately screen-printing the images onto retroreflective sheeting, which is usually used to make road signs visible in the dark. On top of that, painterly brushstrokes sit on the outermost layer, giving it the illusion of abstraction. It is only when the images are manually activated by light, such as a camera flash or a torch, that the full details of the historical images come to view. Since the appearance of the works keeps changing, mirroring the constant state of sociopolitical flux in the world at large, the viewer is literally and metaphorically invited to look closer and dig deeper, beyond what is apparent.

Thomas - I think it_s gonna rain today (gold on silver on gold) - 2018 -Ambient (THO00070)
I Think it’s Gonna Rain Today (Gold on Silver on Gold) by Hank Willis Thomas, Screenprint on retroreflective vinyl, mounted on Dibond, 75.6 x 87.6 cm, 2018. Courtesy the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts.

Nowadays digital images circulate at an unprecedented speed, especially on social media. We are used to the habit of browsing without a discerning eye, often believing what we come across without critically thinking about the implications or hidden agenda behind it. Consequently we are easily persuaded by glossy advertisements, cropped news images that distort our perception of what is being reported, and filtered Snapchat and Instagram photos that manipulate reality. In the age of fake news, propaganda and instant gratification, it is wise to pause and reflect on what is happening around us, because history often repeats itself.

To create the works on view, the artist uses traditional photographic techniques rather than a digital camera. Going back to the roots of his photographic training, he emphasises the craftsmanship required in the dark room to carefully create a masterpiece. Echoing this process are gallery walls painted in a dark colour, making viewers observe the works the way they would Andy Warhol’s screenprints or abstract expressionist paintings. The tension between the abstract and the figurative blurs the lines between the narrative presented by the media and reality itself. The artist asks us to re-examine our assumptions about injustice and protests that are ongoing in society.

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