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Hank Willis Thomas on His Collaboration With Sacai

By Eugene Lim

Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Sanchez MonsalveHank Willis Thomas, who created a campaign with Sacai that included in individuals who have broken the rules and pushed the boundaries to defy society’s expectations.
Hank Willis Thomas, who created a campaign with Sacai that included in individuals who have broken the rules and pushed the boundaries to defy society’s expectations.

CONCEPTUAL ARTIST Hank Willis Thomas once told his mother Deborah Willis, a formidable photographer, art and photo historian, as well as a winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, that he would never want to be an artist because all her friends were broke.

Those plans changed when his cousin, best friend, as well as mentor, Songha Willis, was tragically shot and killed in 2000, outside a nightclub in Philadelphia.

That moment marked a pivotal point in Willis Thomas’ life, as he decided Songha’s death needed to stand for something more than just another statistic of gun violence. He embarked on a career as a conceptual artist, examining issues related to Black history, perspective and identity vis-a-vis its portrayal in mainstream media, and used his work as a medium to inform racial equity and civil rights.

In tribute to his cousin, Willis Thomas turned Songha’s last recorded message to him, “Love Over Rules” into a public art sculpture, which is on permanent display in San Francisco.

T Singapore spoke to Willis Thomas over email about his artwork and how it became the focal point of his collaboration with Sacai.

Artwork: Photograph by Mariah Tiffany, Courtesy of Sites Unsee The “Love Over Rules” installation on a building in Yerba Buena area of San Francisco
The “Love Over Rules” installation on a building in Yerba Buena area of San Francisco

Eugene Lim: Could you tell us more about the inception of your art piece, “Love Over Rules”?

Hank Willis Thomas: “Love Over Rules” is a tribute to my cousin Songha Willis, and how he could inspire people to live generously. These were his last words found on a recording after he was shot and killed in Philadelphia in 2000. Love is an action we choose to take. The piece asks: “What do you do to give love? How is love breaking the rules you have in your life?” James Baldwin said,“The world is held together, really it is held together, by the love and the passion of a very few people.” With this piece, I wanted to challenge more people to take up that mantle, as my cousin did.

How did the collaboration between you and Sacai come about?

Chitose Abe, the founder and designer of Sacai, was inspired by the message behind “Love Over Rules”. She wanted to evoke the idea of peace, love and unity in the spring Sacai collections, so it was a natural collaboration. She found inspiration in the imagery and media that I frequently use, such as quilting, and married it with Sacai’s aesthetic sensibility. The campaign for the spring collections was created by my studio in collaboration with Equator Productions, and includes individuals from our shared creative community— artists, activists and musicians — who inspire me and who I love.

The artwork is moving from occupying a physical space on Mission Street in San Francisco to being translated into garments worn by people around the world. Do you see this collaboration between Sacai and yourself as a new form of public art?

Public art has the ability to speak to such a broad audience, and inspire communities, without the gatekeeping of traditional institutions. Clothing has a similar power since it speaks to the identity of the person wearing it, out in the world in the public domain, not unlike public art.

Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Sanchez MonsalveHank Willis Thomas with his wife, the Zimbabwe-born, New York-based curator Rujeko Hockley
Hank Willis Thomas with his wife, the Zimbabwe-born, New York-based curator Rujeko Hockley

What are your thoughts about art during a time of pandemic?
The pandemic has created a sense of heightened fear and anxiety for all of us, upending the way we all live. Art can be a means of processing this collective trauma, of waking us up to both the beauty and failings in our world. The pandemic has changed the ways and places we experience art, and can make it more accessible, which is a hopeful prospect.
In this way I have been thinking recently about the role of artists, [how we are] essential workers [in] the fabric of society.

What were some of your favourite moments during the creation of your campaign with Sacai and Equator?
My collaborators Fiana Keleta, Albert Ignacio and I loved working with the community of artists and activists we invited to participate in the campaign. They included jazz trumpeter Keyon Harrold, movement artist Mizuho Kappa, artist Zoë Buckman, designer and advocate Celine Semaan Vernon, jazz pianist Jason Moran, artist and activist Chella Man and curator Rujeko Hockley, my amazing wife.

Collaborating with this group of artists I really respect and love was such an embodiment of the core concept behind the campaign. Sacai was so generous and trusting with their energy and support and Equator really made magic happen under extraordinary circumstances. They really illustrated the theme of the project in what they brought to the work in front of and behind the camera.

Image Courtesy of Emmanuel Sanchez Monsalvethe Lebanese-Canadian designer, writer, and activist, Céline Semaan who said of “Love Over Rules” that “it’s beautiful to talk about love in that context, because love, you cannot control love.”
the Lebanese-Canadian designer, writer, and activist, Céline Semaan who said of “Love Over Rules” that “it’s beautiful to talk about love in that context, because love, you cannot control love.”

You ran a campaign where you invited a cast of individuals to discuss what “Love Over Rules” means to them. Has the meaning of “Love Over Rules” changed for you, from the time you conceptualised it, to now?

I wouldn’t say it has changed, but it has certainly expanded. I believe love is intention and action. Love moves us and cannot be tamed. It is freedom in action.

What are your thoughts about fashion in the context of art?
Fashion is a form of both self-expression and cultural expression and has become a global communication tool, and in that sense is not all that separate from art. I believe everyone is an artist. Working across these disciplines allows the message behind the work to be amplified, which is beautiful to see.

Fashion and art have always been intertwined. Through this collaboration, has your impression of the fashion landscape changed?
Working with someone like Chitose — who is such a brilliant artist in her own right, and [who goes] beyond the surface interpretation to create these beautiful and intricate garments — elevates the conversation about what can and should happen