Hank Willis Thomas & For Freedoms: Another Justice: US is Them
On ViewThe Parrish Art Museum
Another Justice: US is Them
July 23–November 6, 2022
Water Mill, NY
In 1943, the painter-illustrator Norman Rockwell created a series of paintings to illustrate the aspirational “Four Freedoms” defined by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his 1941 State of the Union Address: freedom of speech and of worship; freedom from want and from fear. Rockwell’s painting, Freedom from Want (1943), today referred to as the “Rockwell Thanksgiving,” portrays a stereotypical gathering of smiley white kin gathered around a table set with fine linen, china, silver, and a succulent turkey. There is no want. Fast forward to 2016, when a coalition of artists, academics, and organizers, including Hank Willis Thomas, founded the organization For Freedoms, the title riffing on Rockwell’s mid-twentieth century portrayals of mostly white entitlements. For Freedoms aspires to engage the arts as a means of helping people reconsider how we as a people view and mete out justice. It’s a huge sweeping mission, but one that the exhibition, Another Justice: US is Them—Hank Willis Thomas & For Freedoms (US refers to the United States) manages to distill to intimate size and scale.
The twelve artists in this show summon humor, irony, and sensitivity to encourage viewers to rethink the self-serving interpretations of American justice that have so unjustly reigned throughout our history. They do so by quietly tapping into personal perspectives and cultural prejudices, their messaging more oblique than explicit. There is, for example, a 55-foot neon sculpture reading “Remember Me” spanning the museum’s exterior southern wall. The signage sends an enigmatic message to drivers-by who, if they visit the exhibition, will learn that these words and script replicate a hand-written note on the back of a vintage WWI postcard. The postcard bears the portrait of a Black soldier holding a rifle and sporting an American flag on a hat associated with the Buffalo Soldiers—a Black cavalry US Army regiment begun in 1866. Thomas immortalizes this otherwise anonymous soldier by transferring the postcard photograph onto a UV print, titled Remember Me (Amérique Forms in Space) (2022), one of several multi-media “flags” by Thomas featured in this exhibition. Each flag deconstructs the iconic American banner we more typically see waving in the breeze: In Freedom (2021), Thomas reconfigures the flag’s horizontal red and white stripes into a labyrinth that spells out the word “Freedom”; in Imaginary Lines (2021), a progression of vertical red and white stripes suggest prison bars. As these works conflate the American flag with symbols of confinement and anonymity, so do they expand the meaning of the refrain “Remember Me,” letting it refer to the hopeless fate of incarcerated prisoners, most of them people of color.
Kambui Olujimi also deals with the way America’s racially disproportionate incarceration rate marginalizes the magnitude of white responsibility for violent crime. He upends the whitewash in a moving series of monochromatic ink drawings titled “Redshift” (2018). These depict the likenesses of white Americans—John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Hinckley Jr. among them—who with some success sought to assassinate American Presidents. Exhibition curator Corinne Erni intersperses these assassin portraits with Olujimi’s more recent renderings of the January 6, 2021 insurrection, and with his portraits of Republican election deniers advocating the overturn of the 2020 election. Like Thomas’s flags, Olujimi’s minimalist imagery effectively damns a tradition of media coverage that consistently diminishes white responsibility for crime and violence.
Zoë Buckman and Joiri Minaya deal with gender injustice, both artists choosing fabric to metaphorically merge medium and meaning. Referencing “women’s work,” as well as conflicting perceptions of female fragility, vulnerability, and vengeance, Buckman embroiders on delicate vintage fabrics, foils for the sharp sting of a needle piercing fabric, something we viscerally feel in works such as Rose’s boat (2022), a self-portrait sewn on a lace doily. Buckman’s scraggly threads of “hair” seem pulled from the surface, her eyelashes and facial lines aggressively stitched. Meanwhile, Minaya’s Away from Prying Eyes (2020) grapples with the eroticization of the Caribbean female body, equating the hot, lush, and untamed jungle with female sexuality. Minaya’s photographs chronicle performances in which she dons a landscape-patterned bodysuit and then struggles to escape from it. This shedding of her superimposed “skin,” photographed against a background of tropical floral wallpaper, expresses her determination to liberate herself from an ethnocentric idealization of femininity.
US is Them literally homes in on the theme of injustice as an endemic condition rooted in early American history. Just a casual stroll around the open windswept fields of The Parrish Art Museum reminds us that this building, like most all East End, Long Island architecture, whether public or private, sits on land stolen from Indigenous people by white seventeenth century settlers. The exhibit activates this history with a series of digital posters intermittently flashing on one of a pair of controversial six-story illuminated advertising billboards, monuments that the Shinnecock Indian Nation erected in 2019 on a small remaining patch of their land. These enormous towers flank the east and west lanes of Sunrise Highway, the main conduit through a string of upscale Hampton hamlets that runs past the famed Shinnecock Golf Course, a site built over ancient Indigenous burial grounds. Many consider the monuments’ size, design, and continuous beaming of commercial advertising—an important source of revenue for the Nation—as “out of character” with the Hamptons’ aesthetic.
Though a thread of poetic justice runs through the Nation’s successful perseverance during this controversy, a more significant triumph lies in the collaboration between the museum and the For Freedoms Landback Public Art Initiative. Four artists—Jeremy Dennis, Jeffrey Gibson, Koyoltzintli Miranda-Rivadeneira, and Marie Watt—have each created a digital poster supportive of the rights of Indigenous people, now displayed on a Shinnecock billboard. It is this kind of partnership that affirms the power of art to raise our consciousness as we reflect on our perceptions of justice.