de Saisset Museum

South Bay's free museum of art and history


Winter in America: Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi

September 27 – December 13, 2008


Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi’s collaborative Winter in America project consists of a stop-motion animation video and still photographs that function together to depict the 2000 robbery and murder of Thomas’ cousin Songha Thomas Willis. This tragic event is enacted by G.I. Joe action figures. Ironically, these toys were used by the artists when they were children to play out violent narratives. The narrative represented in Winter in America was developed from an interview with Todd Rose, the primary eye witness to the crime, as well as notes by Leslie Willis, the mother of the victim, taken during the murder trail of the perpetrators. This presentation will be the first time the Winter in America video and still photographs have been exhibited together. According to Willis, the project importantly includes both because, “Video carries the viewer through and still images allow the viewer to ponder.

The resulting work is chillingly powerful—a dramatic statement about violence in African American communities. At the same time, the work directly critiques our culture’s relationship with violence—its prevalence in simulated forms in mass culture and its longstanding presence in the toys of our youth. Willis and Olujimi remind us that the packaging for G.I. Joe dolls identifies the toys as suitable for children ages five and up, even though all the figures are accessorized with guns. Making reference to their own personal relationships with the action figures, the artists reveal the role the toys play in “breeding a culture of violence in young boys, who are invited to author violent scenarios before they can even read.” Independent scholar and curator Carla Williams contributes: “Although this is specifically the story of young men of color, on both sides, and highly personal, this is ultimately a universal American tragedy, the inevitable and all-too-frequent by-product of a country hopped up on its own bullying bravado, blind to the consequences of its mad insistence on acquisition and dominance by any means necessary.”

Hank Willis Thomas received a B.F.A. in Photography from New York University in 1998, an M.F.A. in Photography, and a M.A. in Visual Criticism from the California College of the Arts in 2004. His work has been featured in exhibitions at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, Texas Women’s University (upcoming), the Sesnon Art Gallery at the University of Santa Cruz, and Lisa Dent Gallery, as well as group exhibitions at institutions throughout country, including: the High Museum of Art, the Krannert Art Museum, the Orange County Museum of Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, The Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. Thomas has been the recipient of numerous awards, including a Media Arts Fellowship from Renew Media in New York, a fellowship from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a NYFA Fellowship from New York Foundation for the Arts, and residencies at the Headlands Center for the Arts, Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris, France, among others. Thomas’ work is included in the collections of institutions throughout the country, including the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the International Center of Photography in New York, the Orange County Museum of Art, and The Williams College Museum of Art. Thomas is represented by Charles Guice Contemporary in Oakland and Jack Shainman Gallery in New York.

Kambui Olujimi received his B.F.A. from Parsons School of Design. His work has been featured in museum exhibitions at institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, the Finnish National Gallery/Kiasma Museum in Helsinki, the Polish National Gallery /Zacheta Museum, The National Museum of Spain/Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, and Orange County Museum of Art. Olujimi has been awarded a fellowship from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, as well as residencies from the Fine Art Work Center, the Apex Art Outbound Fellowship to Kellerberin, Australia, the Peekskill Project, and has received the New Works Commission from Art In General in New York. Olujimi’s work is included in the collections of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Orange County museum of Art, and the Sagamore Collection.

Winter in America is accompanied by a full-color, hardcover catalogue published by Charles Guice Contemporary and 81 Press. The book is available at the Museum for $40 for nonmembers and $36 for members.

Please note that this exhibition contains mature content (including intense violence and language) and therefore may not be appropriate for all viewers.

Image: Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, This is My Man Songha, 2005, digital print on aluminum, 24 x 30 in., courtesy of the artists and Charles Guice Contemporary.