Hank Willis Thomas occupies a central place in the Venn diagram of contemporary art and political activism. He is a catalytic force, energizing cross-disciplinary collaborations dedicated to social justice and civic discourse while also producing a rich body of highly relevant artwork. His photography interrogates the representation of Black bodies throughout American history, especially in the media. And his public sculpture celebrates the Black Power movement with positive symbols of self-actualization.
In the wake of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Thomas joined forces with artists Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery to establish the artist-led organization For Freedoms, which models creative civic engagement by making specific tools and resources available to those who want to participate in collective action across the country. At the top of their list was voter registration. A political action committee for artists, For Freedoms launched the “50-state Initiative’’ in 2018, just prior to the midterm elections. They engaged with over 150 artists and grass-roots organizations to realize exhibitions, town hall meetings, and, most notably, hundreds of artist-designed public billboards that extolled civic consciousness. For the most recent presidential election, they reconvened to realize the “2020 Awakening Campaign,” which extended their critical efforts to spur voting, but also focused on the long-term goal of centering the notions of “healing, justice, listening, and awakening” in a more equitable society.
It is the latter concept — of coming to, of stirring consciousness — that drove Thomas and his like-minded cohorts to simultaneously ignite another creative collective: the Wide Awakes. Activated in response to the urgency of the 2020 U.S. election, this decentralized network of artists, curators, designers, filmmakers, dancers, poets, authors, and other creatives draws its inspiration and its name from the eponymously titled, highly organized association of abolitionists that came together during the mid-19th century to elect Abraham Lincoln to the presidency. The original Wide Awakes had a flair for the theatrical and a deft use of iconography to spread their message. This was a youth organization that galvanized an ethos of fraternity and a shared disdain for slavery in 1860. Wearing uniforms comprising capes, black hats, and six-foot-long torches on which were mounted pivoting whale-oil containers, they staged nighttime processions and pageants. They marched to accompany politicians during campaign speeches, flanking them like bodyguards. They distributed abolitionist songbooks and campaign pamphlets. And they adopted the image of a large open eye as their emblem, emblazoning it on banners and all their promotional materials.
In its 21st-century incarnation, the Wide Awakes are driven by an aspiration to play the long, if not infinite, game. Substantive cultural change premised on true equity and justice will take years, maybe a lifetime, but those drawn to the Wide Awakes share a desire to model those values in a sustained fashion. This amorphous network of creative individuals — many of whom use avatars and aliases — came together “in the name of liberation, artist sovereignty, and the evolution of society” in order “to radically reimagine the future and enable self-emancipation.” Their modus operandi is to proceed with love and radical joy in the face of adversity and hate. This is not hashtag activism. The Wide Awakes are among us: dancing in the streets, feeding the food insecure, enrolling voters, making art, convening congresses, promoting healing, and raising consciousness. Their mission states that they “are infinite, disruptive, visionary, accountable.” They stand for the “radical complexity of diversity.” For the ever-expanding Wide Awakes, “creative liberation is a game all of us can play now and forever,” without violence, without hierarchy. In June 2021, For Freedoms announced the creation of National Wide Awakes Day on October 3 and claimed it as a national holiday for everyone to participate in activating civic happiness and collectively imagining a world in which we all want to live.
In response to K21’s invitation to contribute a work to its collection, Hank Willis Thomas and the Wide Awakes created a radiant emblem, a logo for their mission: the all-seeing eye as the nucleus of a starburst. Black and white lines emanate from and simultaneously form this ocular image, which vibrates with insuppressible energy. The title, Ametropia (which looks at first like the name of a yet-to-be-birthed new nation), refers to a visual disorder, a blurring of vision caused by a blockage of light to the retina. It is the blur itself — the softening of edges, the slippage of one thing into another — that defines a place of possibility, a place devoid of exacting definition and division.
In the interview below, Hank Willis Thomas speaks about the origins of the Wide Awakes and his hopes for the open collective’s long-term impact, while characteristically deflecting his own role as a founding member.
What is the genesis of the Wide Awakes? Was it born out of the collaborative group For Freedoms?
The Wide Awakes is a concept. It can be defined as a loosely knit community. It is a way of being and working together that is grounded in radical love and trust of oneself. That means being trustworthy as a collaborator and being open to the complexities of collaboration and actually embracing them. It did come out of For Freedoms, but it was largely inspired by the 1860s abolitionist movement — also called the Wide Awakes — which helped put Abraham Lincoln in office and then push him to do some pretty radical things that would change the nature of American government forever. We recognized that 2020 was going to be an inflection point, a year in which all of us got a wake-up call in one way or another. We knew it would shape not only who we are, but what we’re doing, the value of it, and the risks and rewards associated with every decision we make.
We knew that the work of emancipation championed by the original Wide Awakes wasn’t over. Many of its members went on to fight and die for abolition. But after the Civil War, the United States ultimately rebranded slavery through criminalization and mass incarceration. Because the 13th Amendment allows for involuntary servitude as the punishment for a crime, if duly convicted, people invested in maintaining the status quo of slavery designated some pretty abstract things, like loitering, as criminal acts — which allowed for the descendants of slaves to be re-enslaved. This mentality led to things like the “war on drugs,” which guaranteed the incarceration of people of color at alarming rates. So today, the abolitionist movement still has a lot of work to do. For us in For Freedoms and then the Wide Awakes, the infinite playbook in the 2020 awakening was a relaunching of the abolitionist movement. It was born out of the idea of finding new ways of relating to oneself and to others.
It is a radical idea to be operating from a place of trust and love in the political, let alone cultural, sphere today.
Yes, it’s a rare and precious commodity.
Does the performative nature of the Wide Awakes reflect the strategies of the original Wide Awakes movement?
2020 was very different from 1860, and magic happened in different ways during both of those years. The original Wide Awakes galvanized tens of thousands of people through branding in an almost militaristic way. But, back in 1860, that movement was largely embodied and led by white men with their bravado. For today, I was excited about the way in which they used their branding, their language, and the pomp and circumstance of their performances — which involved marching bands and choruses — to organize creative civic actions around slave auctions and convenings. They played a massive role in encouraging a large portion of the country to reimagine what was possible. And something like that happened with the U.S. election in 2020. I’d like to believe that we were a small part of it — so many different organizations, movements, and collectives challenged themselves and others to redefine what is valuable and how we can and should relate to each other.
Tell us about the imagery for your NFT and how it relates to both of the Wide Awakes movements.
The Wide Awakes’ all-seeing eye has been a part of American iconography for a long time. It’s even on the dollar bill. This is a contemporary reinterpretation of the eye in the spirit of today’s Wide Awakes as a collective, as a multitude with a far reach. It is a natural outgrowth from our collaborative spirit, and it references a kind of awakening, a new awareness. It is an open eye but with a teardrop as the pupil. We took the emblem into a psychedelic space, which is something that has always been visually attractive to me. The Op art component takes something that’s static and forces one’s mind to see movement and thus question what we know to be true. This symbolically reshapes our outlook, our lens on the world, so to speak. The original Wide Awakes engaged ways to re-shift reality through art — they would take old songs and write new lyrics to them, for instance, in a kind of remixing play. There is a need and a desire to change the status quo. The vocabulary of psychedelia — with its roots in 1960s counterculture — represents this desire. It purposefully disorients, and one has to shift their perspective in order to maintain balance.
What has the Wide Awakes accomplished so far in its present incarnation?
We convened a congress in Los Angeles right before the pandemic in early 2020. There is a Wide Awakes Mobile Soup Kitchen that certain members started (as of the end of June, we fed 8,000 people in need in New York City). There was a Juneteenth Jubilee. There was a reinterpretation/engagement of July 4 as InterDependence Day. We launched and promoted a holiday called Wide Awakes Day on October 3 (we now consider it a national holiday), which commemorates a parade that took place across the country in 1860 to advocate for abolition. That organized protest was the largest activation of abolitionists in our country’s history. Today we see the October 3 holiday as a way to elevate civic joy and to identify new ways to encourage the joy of participating in our democracy.
Who are the Wide Awakes?
That is difficult to say. You can’t account for something that only exists when people choose to make it exist. How would you count the participants? This reality gives us an opportunity to push back against language that is rooted in colonialism with its concept of “founders” and “followers.” Even with the invention and enforcement of patents, for instance, we know that a lot of the most powerful and lasting human creations are not bound to one person per se. This is certainly the case with the Internet or even with all the major religions — there is no author, so to speak. The Wide Awakes is not a fixed entity with founders and followers, relying on one person’s ideas or interpretations. It is dependent upon diversity of thought and diversity of identity. The whole NFT craze can be thought of similarly: no one individual created it. It grew out of people trading and elevating the currency of ideas and through that reshaping and launching economies that are forcing governments to try to rush to catch up.
Some people call that magic.
Yes, there is magic there for sure.