REVIEW: Stamps Speaker Series- Hank Willis Thomas

Prior to tonight’s lecture I knew little about Hank Willis Thomas aside from the fact I had seen and been particularly struck by one of his pieces in the Detroit Institute of Art.  I had no idea what a treat that night would be.

When Thomas walked out onto stage in a still brightly lit theater, phone clutched in hand, I’m sure many of us were unsure what to think. He said he then wanted us to start off the night with a collaborative project, to take a picture of a stranger or friend sitting nearby and post it on social media with the hashtag “#thetruthisIloveyou.”  You can find a smattering of these photos on his twitter account here.   This immediately set the tone for the overall optimistic and hopeful presentation, despite the dark subject matter.

Hank Willis Thomas and his Mother

After this brief activity, the lights were dimmed and Thomas started his presentation by introducing the audience to his mother, a talented photographer herself.  He told us about how his mother was once told by a college professor that she, as a woman, was taking up the space of a “good man.”  She carried those words with her for the rest of her life, but in spite of that professor, she has gone on to publish books well into the double digits and is currently a professor at NYU.

He then transitioned smoothly into talking about his own development as an artist.  Thomas said that he had not originally planned to become an artist, but rather fell into the role after his close cousin was murdered in 2000.  Finding himself lacking motivation and drive, Thomas eventually found his way into the artistic field.

An image from a sweater ad

He then took us chronologically through the various pieces and series that he has done. He began to talk about his fascination with framing, and how the theme of frames showed up in many of his college works.  He also produced the B(r)anded Series in which he explored the African-American male body in relation to popular brands and advertisements.   He was particularly fascinated with taking advertisement and stripping away all of the words and identifying information to let the images speak for themselves.  He showed us the various depictions of women throughout the last century, first showing the image and then making his audience guess what the ad was actually for.  It was an eye-opening and sometimes chilling experience.


He then talked about this idea of reformatting images and advertisements so that they can be viewed in a new way.   He would find photos that particularly resonated with him, often of apartheid South Africa, and then find a different way to frame those events, often through cast sculptures where only parts of the original photograph will be shown, leaving the viewer to fill in the rest of the information.


Lastly, he finished up the speech by showing some of the video recording from people across the globe for the  “The Truth Is” traveling project.  This project involved a recording booth shaped like a giant speech bubble that simply says “truth” that was then placed in high traffic areas. Civilians were invited into the booth to record a short video telling what they believed “the truth is.”  One of the most touching and heart wrenching videos, especially because of the recent developments in the news, was of a little boy not even 8 years old who wanted to share the truth that Muslims, like him and his family, were good, peaceful people.

One of the most inspiring things about his presentation, was how captivating of a speaker Thomas managed to be.  He managed to be calm and yet passionate at the same time, providing a wonderful and entertaining balance that still remained informative.

When Thomas finally walked off the stage, there were whoops and cheers scattered among the fervent applause, making this the warmest and most enthusiastic sendoff of any speaker I’ve seen here yet. True to this reception, the Q&A session was the most well attended that I had seen so far, while still remaining fairly small and intimate in the Michigan Theater’s annex. Thomas got to answer questions ranging from his work, to his history as an artist, to his political views.

You can find out more information about Hank Willis Thomas at his website. The STAMPS speaker series is free to the public and is offered every Thursday at 5:10 at the Michigan Theater.  You can find a full list of the upcoming speakers here. 

Photo Sources- 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


REVIEW: Artists of the Photo-Secession Gallery Tour at UMMA

When did photography become an art form? At some point, the technology for capturing images of people, places, and things developed enough that people could start adding artistic flair.

At the turn of the 20th century, a young Alfred Stieglitz had a radical idea that photography could be art, which clashed with ideas of older, more established members such as Charles Buadelaire, who considered photography nothing more than a “servant of the sciences and arts.”

Luckily for us, Mr. Stieglitz would have none of that. He formed the Camera Club of New York and started an avant-garde photography journal that changed how people saw photography.


These new artists, rather than simply pointing and shooting, used more artistic methods for their photographs. They took pictures with a soft focus to try and emulate the “look” of paintings. They used more expensive materials to get better contrast of lights and darks. They printed on Japanese paper, because nothing says classy quite like Japanese paper.

Seeing the pictures was enough to see the transition to photography as an art form, but going on a tour of the exhibit helped place the photos in a social context.

Our photo-secession-3stupendous tour guide compared two images of the Brooklyn bridge and pointed out how one was a standard picture of a bridge, while the other focused on the shapes and form of the structures of the bridge.

At the end, we learned about Stieglitz’s most famous work, The Steerage. He considered The Steerage to be his most important work because, while I only saw an interesting photograph with a lot going on, we learned that there was a deeper meaning.

The Steerage was one of the first photographs to make a social statement. Before the photograph of the protester in Tienanmen Square, or anything from Vietnam, there was a photo showing two separate classes in one photograph: the immigrants both literally and figuratively below the rich on the same ship.

The exhibit made it easy to see why opinions changed from viewing the camera as merely a gadget, to viewing it as a tool of the artist.

All the hard work put in by the photographers to distinguish their work as art, however, made me stop and think. In the era of iPhones and Instagram, where anyone can take a decent photo, are we regressing to a time where the photography is becoming a lesser art form?

PREVIEW: Artists of the Photo-Secession Gallery Tour at UMMA

When did photography become an art? At some point, people took cameras and tried to capture people and places and things not simply for the sake of capturing them, but for the beauty of it. This was the beginnings of pictorialism.

As the UMMA web site states about the early pictorialist photographers:

Their poetic compositions drawn from contemporary life, combined with the use of expensive and labor-intensive printing materials such as platinum and gum bichromate, established these photographs as complex and nuanced works of high artistic quality.

The exhibition is open now and will remain open until March 5th.

Their next FREE upcoming gallery talk/tour is:

Sunday, December 11th at 2pm

Check out their calendar here for more information on the other upcoming gallery talks:

January 15th at 2 pm

February 19th at 2 pm

REVIEW: Athi-Patra Ruga- Penny Stamps Speaker Series.

img_3197Tonight’s choice of organ music was none other than “Over the Rainbow,” from the Wizard of Oz, a fitting tune considering featured guest Athi-Patra Ruga recently put on a show of the same name. Ruga framed his lecture by talking about self-made superheroes, these characters or rather, avatars, that he has both created and embodied to deal with past traumas. These figures have become the central focus of all his varied artistic ventures throughout the years.

performance1One of the very first avatars he created was “Miss Congo,” who he describes as a “club kid.” At this time he took up tapestry work, saying that he would prefer to define his own fate, and his own story, rather than let others do so for him. In particular he wanted to explore the way that black women have been portrayed at art.

The next character he explored was “Injibhabha,” which translates from his native language of Xhosa into alopecia, or hair-loss, in English. This character was created directly in response to a specific incident that occurred in his life.  Ruga had been in Switzerland when he saw a poster featuring cartoon white sheep kicking a cartoon black sheep out of the country, with the message promoting “cleaning up” the country by forcing immigrants out of the country.  He had built up in his mind Switzerland as a kind of utopian space, but in this moment it all came crashing down.  He did a piece of performance art in which he dressed up as this avatar by sewing together an outfit of “costume afros,” and entering a pen of white sheep.  He continued to experiment with this avatar for a while, and some of the photos he took at this time of Injibhabha are placed below.

The Death of Beiruth
The Death of Beiruth

The next character he began exploring was “Beiruth,” which was made in response to a news story covering a South African woman that had been attacked by a man in a taxi for simply wearing a miniskirt.  Beiruth was meant to be hyper sexualized, and create an immediate reaction in those that come across her.  However, eventually the weight of these issues began to wear on him, and so he “killed off” both of these characters with a dramatic photo of Beiruth standing in front of the crashing waves.

screen-shot-2012-11-28-at-1-13-59-pmHis next major avatar was “Ilullwane,” which refers to a bat, or in the context of his culture, a boy who goes to circumcision school as a rite of passage. Many young boys would die because of infection and ill treatment during this process, and those who leave the program would have to face heavy social stigma.  He wanted to create a “superhero” that would provide inspiration for these young boys. This idea led to several other interesting works.  One of which being, “The Body in Question.”  He showed the video below during the presentation.

With this series he hoped to raise awareness about transgender rights. One of his more elaborate works with the avatar of Ilullwane involved a performance act in an Olympic-sized swimming pool and 12 synchronized swimmers.  The photo gallery below shows just some of the images from that performance.

night-of-the-long-knives-i1The most recent of his series is “The Future White Women of Azania.”  Azania is a word used to reference the East African coast line since at least 14 AD among the Greeks.  The major motif of this series is Ruga’s body entirely covered in balloons, and by popping these balloons he is “shedding his identity.” This project is ongoing, and he continues to find new ways to explore this series, already producing everything from sculpture to photography to textiles.installation-view4


The presentation ended with the premier of Ruga’s new video, “Queens In Exile,” which marks the start of yet another character. The video started out with Ruga dressed as a queen, with extravagant jewels and costuming.  The video took us through several distinctive sections before ending with the shot you see below.  You can see a clip of the video, and hopefully eventually the full video on Ruga’s Facebook page.


I also got a chance to attend the Q&A session immediately following the presentation.  Nearly every lecture has a Q&A session, and I’ve always found them to be tremendously enriching. This time Ruga discussed in further depth his thoughts on the recent US election, the current trend towards conservatism globally, his process for getting into character, and the influence the internet has had on his life and work.

The Stamps Speaker Series is held every Thursday at 5:10 PM at the Michigan Theater.  There are only two more presentations this semester, but the series will pick right back up next semester.




REVIEW: Misha Friedman’s Photography

Misha Friedman’s talk about photography began with the timeline of what led him to the practice.  His story begins as an immigrant from Moldova.  He then studied economics and eventually started working for Doctors Without Borders.  This inspired his first photo series on tuberculosis.  He was interested in photographing the disease in a manner that communicated the story of the people and invoked interest.  The unchanging day to day events of the patients made this difficult, and this prompted Misha Friedman to see what other observations could be meditated on through photography.

The intention behind Misha Friedman’s work is what I found most interesting.  He uses a method of informed story-telling.  “You only have one motherland.  You have only one mother,” Misha said, when discussing why he decided to make a trip to Russia to photograph a series centered around the concept of ‘corruption’.  There is no denying where you come from.  His series on patriotism focused on this.  He found this nagging feeling of patriotism, which inspires feelings of pride or allegiance or united ideology, prevalent in Russia in its ambiguity.  The country of Russia is physically large, which is part of the reason for the many differences in belief across the regions.  Another part is the segregated belief systems that have come to dominate Russia over the years.  Now Russians feel not only a confused sense of patriotism but a pressure to feel a certain way about their country because of the strictness of the political structure.  Friedman aims to capture the clandestine nature of political sentiment in the country through his series on patriotism.  In his talk, Friedman discussed how the way of displaying photographs in a gallery is not always ideal because different galleries have different set ups and the lay out of a series is never quite the same in a different space.  His solution to this was to have his photos on an interactive website.  On the website is a series of portraits of Russians he interviewed, and the accompanying recording of those interviews begins to play when the portrait is clicked on.  To make the series a more direct response to the question of “what is patriotism to Russians” Friedman has the portraits organized by age group and by questions asked.

Another aspect of Friedman’s work that assists in his story-telling is his use of black and white.  He points to color as a complicated factor to use in photography, and that is why he uses black and white in many of his photos.  It brings the viewer a finer focus on the subject matter and eliminates concerns that might interfere with the story of the image.

After the talk, there was a strong sense of intention in his work which is something I am not used to hearing from talks on arts in other mediums.  As someone not too familiar with photography, I found there to be a strong focus on content for Misha’s work, as it all has ties to the political.  His work is also strong in the sense that it has the communicative goal of telling a clear story, which makes his work read as informational.  It is easy to perceive the message in his work, and because of that the viewer’s relative take away from the work is relatively singular and successful in bringing together a community of people to observe and process the same information.