Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) probes the visual culture of identity, history, social justice, and popular media through conceptual art. His multimedia installations invite viewers to consider modes of systemic oppression and explore the depths of collective memory. These two installations, which source imagery from photography and archival materials, reframe historical iconography to resonate with contemporary audiences and propose constructive, collaborative, reparative futures.
Inspired by an antique postcard of a young Black man—possibly a World War I veteran—holding a rifle, Remember Me (2022) memorializes the strength, courage, and forgotten legacies of rural African Americans in the early 20th century. It replicates, as a large illuminated neon sign, the words handwritten on the back of the postcard: “Remember me.” Thomas encountered the source object at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut.
“…but by the content of their character” (Test pattern) (2020) also deals with memory, imagery, and race. This work is one of several Thomas has made by placing a UV print on retroreflective vinyl, creating rainbow-hued vertical bands reminiscent of a TV test pattern. Viewers must move through space for the reflective photographic image to become visible. In this specific iteration of the series, Thomas spotlights an iconic image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963. Flash photography further activates the image—inviting visitors to participate in image making.
Where Remember Me memorializes an unidentified figure one would not expect to find in textbooks or in movies, “...but by the content of their character” (Test pattern) features an iconic image of a widely known civil rights activist at a key, defining moment. Both works prompt perspectival shifts, asking audiences to reflect on the process of storytelling and history’s biases in a call to action.
This installation is presented in conjunction with the unveiling of The Embrace, a new memorial in the Boston Common honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King’s commitment to racial equity. The Embrace was designed by Thomas and the MASS Design Group and commissioned by Embrace Boston, the Boston Foundation, and the Collection of the City of Boston.
- Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art, Level 2