Of stereotypes, philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “Once you label me, you negate me.” Artist Hank Willis Thomas puts it another way: “I really want to believe that I’m a human being, and that my identity isn’t restricted to being these two things that haven’t served me: being black and being male.”
Understanding what it means to be a black man in America is the mission of “Question Bridge: Black Males,” a video installation by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair currently on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The work curates some three hours of footage taken from interviews with over 150 subjects into an installation displayed on five video screens simultaneously, with subjects appearing and disappearing intermittently.
The interviews flip the format on its head by requiring subjects ask questions as well as answer them. “Rather than doing a traditional documentary of having people sit in a room and have a conversation, we thought we could record people asking questions on camera and then show those questions to people and record their answers,” says Thomas. “You get a more authentic answer because a lot of the social mores that people deal with in person are cut out.”
Facing the inquiry of what questions they would want to ask of other black men, subjects responded with everything from “Why wouldn’t you be happy with your son being gay?” to, “Do you want to get out of the situation you’re in?” One subject, after watching another person record their interview, asked if he could submit his own question: “Why didn’t y’all leave us the blueprint?”
“The question was just there, and it was obviously something he’d been thinking about for some time, and it was so potent,” says Thomas. “That’s what the project does. We all have the capacity for critical thinking and doing very important research, but we can’t all always get on a microphone.”
Thomas, a photographer and visual artist, attended the Duke Ellington School of the Performing Arts in DC, which he credits for teaching him that there are many different ways to “be black,” whatever those words might mean. His work has been exhibited all over the world, as well as locally at the National Portrait Gallery, the National Museum of American History, and at the Corcoran, where an exhibition of his work, “Strange Fruit,” was featured alongside the museum’s “30 Americans” showcase of contemporary African American artists in 2011.
“Question Bridge” was initially a project conducted by artist Chris Johnson, a professor of Thomas’ who filmed subjects in San Diego discussing beliefs and issues affecting their community. About seven years ago, Thomas asked if he could reprise the work, focusing this time on black men. Questions led the four collaborators towards other subjects, sometimes in complex ways: After one man asked the question, “What’s so cool about selling crack?”, Johnson started teaching meditation in a San Francisco jail so he’d have access to incarcerated men who could answer that very question. “The journey of these questions is almost as interesting as the questions themselves,” says Thomas.
In addition to the installation at the Corcoran, “Question Bridge” also has an app in development that will allow people to record and submit their own questions and answers to the database. January 23 at THEARC in southeast DC, co-creator Bayeté Ross Smith will host a “Blueprint Roundtable Discussion” with community-nominated leaders to discuss the project. The work also features a curriculum teachers can use to talk about the work with their classes, and will eventually be developed into a documentary.
While “Question Bridge” can’t offer a definitive answer in terms of explaining the perimeters of black maleness, one subject puts it this way: “Our commonality is in our history, but our beauty as black men is in our diversity.”
“Question Bridge: Black Males” is at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through February 16. See a trailer for the work below. For more information about the exhibition and its accompanying programs, visit the Corcoran’s website.