Freedom is Going Home presents an intergenerational dialogue between Faith Ringgold and Hank Willis Thomas. The exhibition showcases new work by Thomas created in response to Ringgold’s iconic story quilts, paintings and posters and marks the first time that the artists engage in a dual presentation. Drawing on both artists’ exploratory approach to their mediums and pulling together visual references between the US and multiple African countries, the show speaks to their commitment to articulating Black stories and the desire for liberation across geographies.
Faith Ringgold is one of the most influential cultural figures of her generation with a career spanning sixty years. Her work ties together personal experience and collective histories. It is integrated with activism grounded in feminist and anti-racist foundations. Recent survey shows, including Faith Ringgold: American People (2022) at New Museum (New York) and its extension Faith Ringgold: Black is beautiful at Musée National Picasso-Paris (2023), demonstrate how civil rights and social justice have been at the core of her practice. Thomas’ practice is also framed by social justice. This is seen through his thematic interrogation of the media and historical archives as well as the inclusion of politically charged symbols across works. Collective projects such as For Freedoms extend this. Founded in 2016 by Thomas and other artists, academics and organisations, this artist-led initiative centres art and creativity as a catalyst for transformative connection and collective liberation.
“The first time I recall coming across Faith Ringgold’s work was at an exhibition my mother curated at the Smithsonian. I had the poster from one of her quilts over my bed during high school. The idea of using a quilt as a material for storytelling was really impactful for me” – Thomas.
A focal point of the exhibition is Ringgold’s South African Love Story #2: Part I and II (diptych) (1985-87) – a two-part quilt that grounds the show in a South African narrative, quoting a literary text that tells the romantic story of a couple that has been separated and the struggle for freedom that eventually unites them. Produced during the 1980s, a highly volatile time in South Africa’s history, the work highlights how the country was in the consciousness of activists in the US and emphasises solidarity across the Atlantic. The exhibition introduces this work to South African viewers for the first time since its creation almost 40 years ago.
The show also includes textile works from Ringgold’s 1970s Windows of the Wedding series and her 1980s Dah series. Mostly known for her figuration, these series showcase abstract compositions that reference Tibetan tanka motifs and central African Kuba designs.
Thomas builds on the African American quilting tradition shown through Ringgold’s work, as well as builds on the understanding of African American solidarity with the continent’s liberation struggles and complex political history in his new quilts. Constructed by fragmenting and rearranging flags from African countries, the artist uses folkloric quilt patterns of the American Underground Railroad (a secret network that assisted enslaved people in their journey to freedom) as a guide. The titles for the works are drawn from famous speeches or quotes from various Pan-Africanist leaders.
Thomas’s lenticulars I am You / I Am Joy (2023) and I am. Am I? AM I? I Am (2023) see a direct interaction with Ringgold’s set of collages from the 1970s. Her collages include phrases that speak to Black feminist sentiments borne out of her personal experiences. Thomas borrows Ringgold’s typographic aesthetic and layout to speak to ideas around identity in a contemporary context. The lenticulars also reference the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, specifically the posters declaring “I AM A MAN.” These works, through the nature of their material, force viewers to look again, mirroring the artist’s revisiting of this historical moment and protest art more generally.
His two recent sculptures All Power to All People (bronze) (2023) and Solidarity (2023) follow a visual precedent set through a larger ongoing series that contemplate symbols of identity and empowerment.
Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976, New Jersey, United States) is a conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture.
Thomas has exhibited throughout the United States and abroad including the International Center of Photography, New York; Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spain; Musée du quai Branly, Paris; Hong Kong Arts Centre, Hong Kong, and the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Netherlands.
Thomas’ work is included in numerous public collections including the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Brooklyn Museum, New York; High Museum of Art, Atlanta, and National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
His collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males, In Search Of The Truth (The Truth Booth), Writing on the Wall, and the artist-run initiative for art and civic engagement For Freedoms, which in 2017 was awarded the ICP Infinity Award for New Media and Online Platform. Thomas is also the recipient of the Gordon Parks Foundation Fellowship (2019), the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (2018), Art for Justice Grant (2018), AIMIA | AGO Photography Prize (2017), Soros Equality Fellowship (2017), and is a member of the New York City Public Design Commission. Thomas holds a B.F.A. from New York University (1998) and an M.A./M.F.A. from the California College of the Arts (2004). In 2017, he received honorary doctorates from the Maryland Institute of Art and the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.