New Pam exhibits aim to disarm racial stereotypes

“Guernica” modeled after Picasso’s original criticizes modern capitalist systems. Photo by Gabriel Mantione-Holmes

Outside of the Portland Art Museum (PAM) passersby will see two banners on either side of the entrance. The left reads “I AM MANY” and the right “I AM. AMEN.” Together they preview two of the twenty paintings in Hank Willis Thomas’s “I Am A Man.” This is one of the many pieces in his first major exhibition “All Things Being Equal …” which opened Oct. 12. This over 90-piece exhibition, including sculptures, quilts, videos and more, will be on display until Jan. 12.

Stepping through the entrance, attendees will be met first by an eight-foot- tall Black Power afro pick set diagonally in front of a red backdrop with Thomas’s name and exhibition title in white. This sculpture called “All Power to All People” introduces the gravity and tone of the other works. Behind the first piece, sixteen banners resembling the canton of the American flag, display 14,719 stars rising 30 feet into the air. One star is allocated for each person shot and killed by another in 2018 in the United States. 

The second floor of PAM hosts the majority of the pieces. The first room contains a selection of chromogenic-prints, which in this case are photographic prints made from a digital image. They depict men of color and the systematic violence they have endured through the commodification of their bodies by the sports-industrial complex and corporations. This is then followed by a five-minute-long animated film recounting the murder of Songha Willis who was Thomas’s cousin, roommate and closest friend.

Attendees will learn about how advertisements have enforced negative racial stereotypes of people of color. This is then juxtaposed with the portrayal of white women as the American beauty standard. This includes a “Community Partners In Residence Space” where a description reads “a place for people to break, to gather, to laugh, to discourse, to dance, to exist both inside and outside the exhibition.” 

Displayed in front of this space hangs Thomas’s massive 131 by 281 inch “Guernica.” Modeled off of Pablo Piccaso’s piece of the same name, Thomas’s piece is a quilt made from sports jerseys. His repurposing of one of the most memorable anti-war pieces with sports jerseys compares modern day capitalist power to the evils of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy.

Passing the Thomas quote, “The most revolutionary thing a person can do is be open to change,” displayed as you walk downstairs on a red backdrop in white letters, is the final room of the exhibition. This gallery focuses on ideas of solidarity, resistance and resilience throughout history through sculptures, quilts, mirrored pieces and a five-minute video. This accumulation of work demonstrates Thomas’s innovative approach to visually different but thematically similar pieces. 

In conjunction with this exhibition is a three-hour documentary project by Chris Johnson, Hank Willis Thomas, Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair located in PAM’s Jubitz Center for Modern & Contemporary Art. The series is called “Question Bridge: Black Males” and consists of 160 interviews of black males across social classes in the U.S. It features a group of black males asking and answering each other’s questions and aims to debunk the myth of the homogenous black male identity.

Thomas’s work over various mediums across the museum displays his focus on the individual. His work challenges and attacks various stereotypes and their enablers. Yet, he gives a sense of hope by demonstrating the progress made from an incredibly painful past, while not shying away from the violence still seen across our country. This exhibition displays some of his most powerful works and provides a muti-media experience that should not be missed. 

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