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Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around

A Response from Julie Willis

Video Transcript

Julie Willis is a Cincinnati Art Museum docent with a background in graphic design and postsecondary education.

Exhibition section text, Cincinnati Art Museum

Trouble the Water

“I try to bring history forward, to take the things we already know or think we know and show them in a new light, not only to view them but also to broaden understanding.”

-Hank Willis Thomas

In works on view here and in the main exhibition galleries, Thomas reflects on the ways messages of solidarity, resistance, and resilience circulate during periods of unrest, often fading into history only to reemerge during new moments of struggle. Beginning with historical photographs, the artist changes scale, shifts contexts, layers symbols, and uses a range of materials to draw our attention to the power of individual voices and collective actions.

Photography informs all of Thomas’s artwork, but these works especially emphasize his subtle engagement with the photographic archive as a form of history. They implore us to pay attention to our collective past, reminding us that visual documents keep the past alive and available as a resource for the present.


Label text, Cincinnati Art Museum

Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around



seventeen digital prints on silvered glass

Collection of Nasher Museum of Art of Duke University. Museum purchase with additional funds provided by JoAnn Busuttil

Here Thomas recreates details of photographs of the Selma to Montgomery, Alabama civil rights marches, taken by James “Spider” Martin for the Birmingham News in the mid-1960s. Past moments of violence and triumph are printed on surfaces that literally reflect the present-day context in which they are placed. By using mirrored surfaces, Thomas asks us to look at ourselves in relation to these transformative events.

The title Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Us Around refers to an African American spiritual that became an important anthem in the civil rights movement. Each verse of the song ends in a resolute proclamation: Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around / I’m gonna keep on walkin’, keep on talkin’ / Marchin’ to that freedom land. Or, as another version of the lyrics urge: I’m gonna build a brand new world.

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.