Would You Stand Up for Your Beliefs? New Hank Willis Thomas Show Asks Just That

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Hank Willis Thomas came across the photo in 2014. The artist, whose work deals with identity, history and popular culture, often employs vintage images in his art. This one, taken in 1936, is of a crowd of Germans in a Homberg shipyard. Adolf Hitler has arrived to christen a ship, and as thousands Seig Heil the führer, one man stands, arms folded, a solitary figure of defiance in a sea of complicity.

Willis learned the mans name, August Landmesser, and that he was married to a Jewish woman. Somehow, Landmesser survived the war, and his gesture, captured nearly 80 years ago, was a spark for What We Ask Is Simple, Thomass latest show. What I think about when I look at the photo is that if I had been standing in that place, would I have that courage? the artist says. When everyone around me is doing the same thing, would I stand up for what I believe in? That is what this whole body of work is about.

The show, divided between Jack Shainmans two Chelsea galleries in New York and running through May 12, features 15 works based on photographs of 20th century protest movements around the world. (What We Ask Is Simple is a phrase from an American Civil Rights protest sign.) Images include the 1913 funeral procession of militant suffragette Emily Davison; a black 15-year-old who carried the American flag 54 miles through Alabama, from Selma to Montgomery, in 1965; members of the American Indian Movement seizing Wounded Knee in 1973; and South Africas 1976 Soweto uprising. In that last d....

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