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All Things Being Equal

Artist explores discrimination in popular culture

Beverly Corbell | 10/9/2019, 11:46 a.m.
A thought-provoking look at how art can give a window into how modern culture perpetuates discrimination
“The Cotton Bowl" (left), and "Branded Head” are two of the thought-provoking works by African American multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas from his “All Things Being Equal” exhibit.

A thought-provoking look at how art can give a window into how modern culture perpetuates discrimination, titled “All Things Being Equal” by African American artist Hank Willis Thomas, will open Saturday, Oct. 12 at the Portland Art Museum.

Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas

This is the first major retrospective of Thomas’ work, said Portland Art Museum spokesman Ian Gillingham, and reflects the museum’s efforts to build equity with its patrons, artists and exhibits.

“He looks at the language of advertising and marketing and branding in a way that deconstructs American commercialism to show how that language reflects and perpetuates historical systems of oppression,” Gillingham said.

Utilizing photographs, sculptures, videos and other public art, the exhibit is formulated to draw out the role popular culture has in instituting discrimination and how art can raise awareness to the ongoing struggles for social justice and civil rights.

The human toll of gun violence, for example, is reflected in a new piece commissioned for the exhibit that was inspired by the gunshot murder of Thomas’ cousin, an innocent bystander in a robbery where another man was targeted for his gold chain, Gillingham said.

He described the new piece as monumental, inspired by the American flag but composed of strips of textiles that go from floor to ceiling in the museum’s entrance hall.

“On those strips are 14,719 stars, representing lives lost to gun violence in 2018,” he said.

Another work, a photo collage titled “The Cotton Bowl” inspires amusement as well as consternation by displaying a football player at the line of scrimmage across from a man in a straw hat picking cotton. More disturbing, and even more thought-provoking, is a photo showing half of a black man’s bald head with the Nike symbol that looks like it’s formed of scar tissue.

The exhibit features more than 90 works, and also includes sculptures based on archival photographs, quilts constructed from sports jerseys and prison uniforms, video installations and more.

Thomas will be guest of honor for the exhibit’s opening celebration, which is also on Saturday, Oct. 12, starting at 5 p.m., a community event which includes a benefit dinner and opening party at 8:30 p.m.

“All Things Being Equal” runs through Jan. 12. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, with free admission after 5 p.m. on the first Thursday of the month and $5 admission every Friday after 5 p.m. For more information, visit portlandartmuseum.org.

--Beverly Corbell