Sports Meets Fine Arts: A Conversation With Hank W...

Sports Meets Fine Arts: A Conversation With Hank Willis Thomas

On March 18th the exhibition March Madness opened at the Fort Gansevoort only a few days after the annual month-long NCAA college basketball tournament, by the same name, kicked off. The group show, curated by Hank Willis Thomas and Adam Shopkorn, presents the work of 28 artists whose artistic practice stands on the cross roads of sports and art. The works examine different political issues by using sports imagery such as Jeffrey Gibson’s embroidered sandbag Ain’t Got No, I Got Life or Zoe Buckman’s neon light sculpture Champion that takes the shape of a uterus with two boxing gloves as ovaries. During my phone conversation with artist turned curator Hank Willis Thomas we chatted about the shows intentions as well as his political initiatives during this year’s presidential elections and his Kickstarter campaign The Truth Booth.  

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March Madness, Photo: Fort Gansevoort

Art Report: My first question is, an artist turned curator, what was your experience putting together this show? Do you feel that being an artist gave you a different perspective?

Hank Willis Thomas: Yeah. I have curated three shows in the past six weeks. It has been a really exciting time for me as a curator. What is awesome is to be able to work with other artists and to see how their vision takes shape when they put together a show. When you look at it as an artist, you also just think about it from your perspective but really learning from other people’s perspectives and their process of making work and what they place value on, it is really inspiring.

AR: The show is about American sports and American sport culture and sort of the racism that manifests in it. Could you tell me a bit more about that?

HWT: I don’t really see it as particularly being about the racism that manifests in it. Its about how people are using sports as a metaphor and a strategy to talk about different political issues that are really kind of often overlooked or glossed over.

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“And One,” Hank Willis Thomas. Photo: Jack Shainman Gallery

AR: What would you say are the political issues that the artists are addressing in the exhibition you are presenting?

HWT: I think some people are addressing racism. Some people are addressing sexism. Some people are talking about overcoming racism, sexism. Some are talking about self-empowerment through sports, political empowerment through sports. I think there is a broad range of things that are going on. People are talking about sports as history and about iconic moments. Sports as a method for putting together a strategy, redefinition. I think people are approaching it from broad range of perspectives.

AR: How did the idea for the exhibition come about? I know it is related to the work you do. Did you take it out of your own practice or has it been a thing that you have been thinking about a lot?

HWT: Yeah. That is a great question. I think for me it really came out of conversations with Adam Shopkorn from Fort Gansevoort, who is really very much into sports and fine art, and us together realizing that there hasn’t been that much real exploration of fine art and sports, and also trying to put some of the political element in but not being completely political is also something that we were kind of interested in.

AR: I thought it was kind of surprising and interesting as well. Did you get any surprising or unexpected reactions to the exhibition?

HWT: It sounds funny to say but I was surprised by how well it came together. You think there are so many different artist and so many different ways of working. There is photography. There is printmaking. There is painting. There is sculpture. There is sound art. There is actually fabric-based work. Yeah. There is sculpture. There’s just so many different ways that people work. Drawing. I think it really works. I am just excited that so much of it was able to come together and, I think, make a strong, cohesive statement.

Rashid Johnson- Self Portrait as the Black Jimmy Conors in the finals of the Negro Escapist Social and Atheltic Club Summer Tennis Tournament FORT_GANSEVOORT nyc artreport

“Self-Portrait as the black Jimmy Connors in the finals of the New Negro Escapist Social and Athletic Club Summer Tennis Tournament,” Rashid Johnson. Photo: Speyer Family Collection

AR: Did you feel there was a certain urgency right now to bring up the topic? Why did you decide to do it now?

HWT: I think there has been a lot of protests happening around a variety of issues. I thought that might be and then also the fact that it is during March Madness or it started during March Madness. I thought that was just a great kind of metaphor.

AR: Is there something that you want your visitors to take away from the exhibition?

HWT: I really want them to engage and hopefully think, of course, not just for entertainment but through a political lens but also look at art that way as well.

AR: I read that you founded a political action committee called Fort Freedom. Could you tell me a bit more about that and does that have an influence in the show?

HWT: Yeah. I think it is a highly political season. I think it is important for artists to use their voices to engage with the issues of our time and for people to see art as not just decoration or entertainment but really as something that can help build and broaden the conversations about what we are think are important and the change that we want to see happen in our society.

Robert Longo - Full-scale Study for Five Rams (Ferguson- Hands Up- November 30, 2014) FORT_GANSEVOORT nyc artreport hank willis thomas

“Full-scale Study for Five Rams (Ferguson, Hands Up: November 30, 2014),” Robert Longo. Photo: Robert Longo / Metro Pictures

AR: What sort of goals do you have for the committee?

HWT: I really would love for us to stop having very simplistic conversations about … I think so much of the very important issues at times are dumbed down into simple good or bad, black or white things. I think we really need to have a higher level of conversation. I want the PAC to be a form for that.

AR: Do you plan any certain actions to go along with that?

HWT: We are having actually yet another curated exhibition that I am working on that we are going to be doing a series of actions in the gallery and then also producing ads and putting them out there into the world.

AR: Do you have any other personal projects coming up that you could tell me about?

HWT: We launched a Kickstarter for yet another project called, “The Truth Booth.” We are trying to take that to all 50 states and have it at the elections. It is a serious endeavor and it is exciting.

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March Madness, Photo: Fort Gansevoort

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March Madness, Photo: Fort Gansevoort

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March Madness, Photo: Fort Gansevoort

The exhibition March Madness is on view at Fort Gansevoort through May 1, 2016.


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Adriana Pauly is a curator and art writer with a MFA in Contemporary Art, based in New York. She specializes in artwork by emerging female artists as well as Latin American art. She has been published by Missy Magazine, Autre Magazine and is currently the Content Coordinator of Art Report.