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Hank Willis Thomas Creates a Cultural Conservation With "Black Righteous Space"

NORFOLK, Va. (June, 2015) – Come speak your piece, as the Chrysler Museum of Art becomes a platform for personal expression with In The Box: Hank Willis Thomas’ Black Righteous Space. The artist’s interactive installation immerses visitors in contemporary African-American culture, then invites visitors to voice their own opinions.

Black Righteous Space features a looping soundtrack that combines songs, speeches, and dialogue from more than 50 noted black speakers, singers, and spoken word artists. Among the leaders, musicians, ministers, poets, and celebrities represented are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Gil Scott-Heron, Funkadelic, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mos Def, and Richard Pryor.

As they share their observations on racism, equality, injustice, and life in America, their views range from profound to profane, impassioned to inane, comic to uncompromising. Kanye West critiques the response to Katrina. Alice Walker reads Sojourner Truth. Public Enemy “Fight[s] the Power.” Marian Anderson sings “My Country, Tis of Thee” at the Lincoln Memorial.” The Watts Prophets rail on tenements. Stokely Carmichael questions “black unity.” Morgan Freeman “solves the race problem” with Mike Wallace in less than a minute. And Chris Rock drops a fair number of F-bombs as he defines “the one time white people can say n*****.”

Some of the soundclips are lyrical. Others are inflammatory. Each is punctuated with a throbbing rush of visual force. On the screen, as they speak, a barrage of patterns—including a recurrent Confederate flag recolored in hues of the Black Power Movement—flashes on the screen, pulsing in time to the rhythm of the voices and music. The kaleidoscopic imagery turns the words and music into a continuous visual flow. The artist explains that his work references a lengthy struggle for black civil and human rights.

“I’m using this sound to disrupt historically oppressive symbols,” Hank Willis Thomas says of Black Righteous Space. “By pairing the soundtrack of these speakers with the reverberating, altered flag, the installation explores the idea of taking control of symbols and their meanings.”

Black Righteous Space questions who gets the last word in history,” says Chrysler Museum Director Erik Neil. “By blending such contested symbols and invested voices into an abstraction, Hank Willis Thomas leaves that answer open-ended.  Given recent debates, his awareness of the lasting potency of the Confederate flag couldn’t be more timely.”

Additionally, a microphone at the center of the show keeps the conversation going. This interactive component is a keynote of the exhibition. During randomized periods of silence in the audio track, Thomas encourages visitors to speak or sing into the mic, contributing their own voices and views to his Black Righteous Space. Visitors can also enhance their experience of the exhibition and connect with others by sharing their opinions, as well as photographs or videos of themselves in The Box, on social media. Twitter posts using the hashtags #CMABox and #BlackRighteousSpace will appear on the Chrysler’s live feed online and outside the exhibition.

Black Righteous Space is on view at the Chrysler through October 4, 2015. Admission is free.

Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976, Plainfield, N.J.) regularly tackles issues of pop culture through the lenses of race, identity, advertising, and corporate branding. He earned a B.F.A. in photography and Africana studies from New York University, and an M.F.A. and M.A. in photography and visual criticism from the California College of Arts. His photographs, videos, conceptual installations, sculpture, and mixed-media work have earned him critical praise as one of the top visual artists working in America today. His exhibitions are in demand worldwide, and his art is included in the collections of many of the country’s finest museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the High Museum in Atlanta, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The recipient of numerous grants and awards and a published author, Thomas works in New York City and is represented by Jack Shainman Gallery. He maintains an active web and social media presence at and @hankwthomas on Twitter.

The recently expanded Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, is one of America’s most distinguished mid-sized art museums, with a nationally recognized collection of more than 30,000 objects, including one of the great glass collections in America. The core of this collection was given to the Museum by Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., an avid art collector who donated thousands of objects from his private collection to the Museum in 1971. In the years since Chrysler’s death in 1988, the Museum has dramatically extended its campus and developed new ties with the Norfolk community. It now has rapidly growing collections, especially in the fields of contemporary glass, American art, photography, and 21st-century art.

In 2011, the Chrysler opened a full-service glass studio with a 560-pound capacity furnace, a full hot shop, a flameworking studio, nine annealing ovens, and a coldworking shop. In addition, the Chrysler administers two Federal-period historic houses in downtown Norfolk: the Moses Myers House and the Willoughby-Baylor House.

The Chrysler Museum of Art, One Memorial Place, Norfolk, and its Perry Glass Studio at 745 Duke St., are open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. The Historic Houses on E. Freemason Street are open weekends. Admission is free. For more information on exhibitions, events, and programs, visit or call (757) 664-6200.


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