Review: Hank Willis Thomas opens a ‘Black Righteous Space’ at the California African American Museum
Within the “Black Righteous Space” that New York artist Hank Willis Thomas has set up inside the California African American Museum, fleeting opportunities arise to add your own voice to those of politicians, blues singers, writers and other notables on a soundtrack the artist composed from audio-clips.
A microphone stands in the center of the darkened room, facing a bright, throbbing video projected on one wall. Whenever a random pause in the action occurs, visitors are invited to speak into the mike. It’s a daunting proposition.
For the Record
Nov. 15, 6:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this reviewed spelled CAAM curator Naima Keith’s first name as Naime.
For this 2012 installation piece, Thomas assembled fragments of speeches, songs and readings from the likes of Malcolm X, Gil Scott-Heron, James Baldwin and four dozen more. Subtly and without affectation, Thomas challenges a visitor to measure up to some of the most gifted and popular thinkers and artists of the not-so-distant past. The open-mike competition for meaningful engagement is stiff.
The speakers’ vocal modulations are keyed to the mural-size video projection, which pulses and shifts in psychedelic patterns. They derive from the stars and bars of the Confederate flag.
Over the years, that banner, symbol of the sordid and persistent depths of the United States’ original sin, has itself gone through a variety of iterations in its design and adaptation to various purposes. Thomas undercuts them all with a simple gesture: He changed the colors.
Rather than red, white and blue, his jazzy patterns are red, green and black — colors of the black liberation or pan-African flag. Whether the soundtrack is Jimmy McMillan, witty founder of the Rent Is Too Damn High, a New York political party, or the Rev. Jesse Jackson pressing listeners everywhere to “keep hope alive,” the urgency resonates to the throbbing visual beat of the video patterns.
The emphatically psychedelic style of Thomas’ design is enthralling, transporting a viewer to the immediate aftermath of the civil rights era. In a timely show organized by CAAM curator Naima Keith, the repercussions continue into and beyond the 2016 election season just concluded.
California African American Museum, Exposition Park, 600 State Drive, Los Angeles. Daily to Feb. 19. (213) 744-7432, www.caamuseum.org
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