Artist Hank Willis Thomas Makes a Monument for the 21st Century

Duality, 2023, on view at The Underline's River Room in Miami. Image courtesy of Friends of the Underline.

The V sign, more commonly known as the peace sign, has in the past century achieved a level of uber-ubiquity afforded to only the most universal of gestures. It’s rare to stop and think when someone flashes one, unless you’re from the U.K., Australia, or New Zealand and read it as offensive. But what happens if you sit with it? Hank Willis Thomas is bringing that question to Miami with the unveiling of his sculpture Duality as a permanent public installation at The Underline’s River Room. The Brooklyn-based conceptual artist has already embedded gestural monuments that find the universal in the specific, and vice-versa, in Boston and New York. To mark Duality’s Miami debut, CULTURED called up Thomas to talk about the inspirations and aspirations behind the work.

Image courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas.

CULTURED: How are you feeling ahead of the unveiling of Duality?

Hank Willis Thomas: I’m really excited to be able to present a work in Miami, where in many ways my career as a fine artist began. That’s where I had my first solo exhibition, my first collectors and, of course, I was in the exhibition, “30 Americans'' at the Rubell Museum, which really changed my life. So going to South Florida and actually knowing that a work of mine will be on display there indefinitely is a pretty amazing homecoming experience.

CULTURED: I can imagine! How are you thinking about Duality inscribing itself in Miami’s landscape?

Thomas: I have really been focusing on spaces for public intimacy in my work over the past seven or eight years, and I feel like gesture and body is related to that. The symbol of Duality can be read in various ways depending on your cultural standing, your physical positioning, where you are in your life, or your historical knowledge. I love making work that can be interpreted in various ways but also appears to be addressing the viewer directly as an individual. At a time when public monuments have been contentious for the past decade, being able to make a public monument for the 21st century is really exciting.

CULTURED: The word “duality” can mean so many things, especially in the context of the United States. What does it mean to you today?

Thomas: It means flexibility, reflexivity, and multiplicity. I have really been challenged as an artist who studied photography to be aware of multiple perspectives, right? To not necessarily evaluate everything equally, but to acknowledge the multiplicity of anything that I’m supposed to be presenting.

Hank Willis Thomas, Duality (detail), 2023. Image courtesy of Thomas.

CULTURED: What kind of research about the peace sign was involved in the making of the work?

Thomas: That’s really what led me to it. I forgot that it could be V for victory, or an offensive gesture, or an innocuous gesture. It can be a number. The way this sculpture is made is through 3D scanning. I was interested in Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida and the notion of the “punctum,” which is the part of the photograph that sticks with you. There were so many moments and photographs where this gesture was used that pierced me as a viewer. I wanted to represent that through this work.

CULTURED: What information or feeling do you want the public to carry away from seeing Duality?

Thomas: I’ve come to learn the hard way that the intention of the artist is insignificant to the interpretation of the receiver. Whatever message I put out, the receiver has the power to interpret it on their own terms. Beyond that, I don’t believe that we have very many pictures or monuments to love, to peace, to community in our society. That is what I hope to do, to create a more balanced public display of values which aren’t just about heroes, men, or horses—which is who we’ve celebrated for the past 300 years in Western culture. For hopefully at least 300 years, people will be receiving and witnessing gestures like The Embrace, 2022, Unity, 2019, and Duality that call us to believe in a more humane version of ourselves.

Duality is on view at The Underline’s River Room in Miami starting today.