Michael Coppage (ko-paj) (Cincinnati): I am an artist and speaker and have been featured in print and online for a controversial and provocative series entitled “American +” where I address the appropriation of African-American culture, the simultaneous demonization of black men as well as depict white Americans as monkeys. In addition to my more personal works, I co-created a therapeutic art not-for-profit called PIECES where I work with adolescent psychiatric patients to create large-scale portraits. To date over 300 images have been completed and exhibited around the country.
Exhibition section text, Cincinnati Art Museum
On February 2, 2000, Songha Willis, Thomas's cousin, roommate, and closest friend, was murdered in Philadelphia during a holdup over a gold chain. This profound loss moved the artist, then in his early twenties, to confront the ramifications of gun violence in African American communities.
"The guy who pulled the trigger said, 'I want to get a chain,' and now he's living in chains. My cousin's life was taken over a petty commodity he wasn't even wearing—he just happened to be next to the guy with the chain. Realizing that our ancestors were brought here in chains, and that the system continues to keep us in chains, was really haunting."
-Hank Willis Thomas
Themes Thomas explored in the wake of Songha's death—such as the slipperiness of language; the connectedness of history, contemporary society, and commerce; and the traffic of ideas through images—reverberate through his work to the present moment. So too does his belief in the power of insight, empathy, voice and love.
Label text, Cincinnati Art Museum
Winter in America, co-created by Thomas and visual artist Kambui Olujimi, is an animated recounting of Songha Willis's murder. Thomas used his own childhood G.I. Joe action figures to tell the story, drawing attention to the culturally normalized ways young people are taught to perform and experience violence.
Viewers carrying trauma related to gun violence may wish to bypass this artwork.
Note: Label texts originated at the Portland Art Museum and were modified by venue project teams at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Cincinnati Art Museum.