Artists Hank Willis Thomas and Chris Johnson on the making of Question Bridge: Black Males
Chris Johnson and Hank Willis Thomas first met when Thomas was a student at Oakland’s California College of the Arts in the early 2000s. Johnson was a photography instructor at CCA and a longtime friend of Thomas’s mother, Deborah Willis, who curated Johnson’s images while she was working at New York’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and at the Smithsonian. Now, well over a decade later, Johnson and Thomas—the creative forces behind Question Bridge: Black Males (along with collaborators Bayeté Ross Smith and Kamal Sinclair)—hope to further understanding of the complexity of the Black male experience. The idea for the installation grew out of a video project Johnson did in 1996 in which he invited both men and women to share questions about the Black community. Here, the artists discuss their groundbreaking work and its return to OMCA this fall.
How did Question Bridge: Black Males get started?
Thomas: Chris presented [his 1996 project] Question Bridge: Black Community to a class I was taking on nonfiction documentary, and I thought it was a great idea. After I graduated, I was at my mom’s house, and I came across this VHS tape [Johnson had sent her of the venture]. I approached him about revisiting the project from a different angle.
Johnson: Like any artist, I was attached to the way I had done it originally. When Hank said he wanted to narrow the focus to Black men, I thought: why would you do that? You’d be leaving out all these incredibly powerful voices. But Hank had a vision that changed the direction of the whole project; instead of prescribing differences in the African American community, we just let the men themselves define how they differ from other Black men.
Were you surprised by some of the resulting conversations?
Johnson: It was a constant process of being surprised. For instance, there was a library guard in Birmingham who asked: “I wonder, Black man, are you ready for freedom, and if not, what would it take for you to need this freedom?” That’s a very profound question that caught us completely by surprise and created a necessity to find out how Black men feel about freedom—and who feels more engaged by the issue of freedom than incarcerated men? I began teaching meditation in California prisons until the staff were comfortable with me … and trusted us enough to let us bring cameras into a jail. We asked that exact question and got great answers.
Thomas: That should tell you about the spirit of the project. A simple question from someone we met in Alabama sent us on a journey across the country. Chris worked for a year without really telling us to get access to the jail so we could film there. The project was driven by the participants but also by the audacity of the collaborators.
How does it feel to have Question Bridge: Black Males return to the Oakland Museum of California five years after its initial installation?
Thomas: I feel like the Museum is home for us. I don’t know if this project could have come out of anywhere besides Oakland. It’s a real honor to be celebrated by the Museum.
Johnson: To feel we’ve given something back to the city of Oakland, the fact that we created this thing and it has a place in Oakland, is something that means a lot to us. It is also a bittersweet experience. It’s gratifying to have it come back, but it is not gratifying to hear people say over and over again how much more relevant it is now because of all of the ways Black males are more stigmatized and vulnerable.
Thomas: If everyone could have the experience that we had making this project, the world would be a better place. We stopped seeing [our interviewees] as Black men and started seeing them as deep, rich, beautiful people. Often, a lot of African American men aren’t given the opportunity to be seen that way.
What would you like Museum visitors to come away with?
Thomas: The knowledge that African American men are diverse, that there is so much more to us than the colors of our skin.
Johnson: I hope that it changes people’s ideas about the nature of Black men. I couldn’t have any deeper hope than that.
Photography: From left to right: Andrea Blanch (Hank Willis Thomas); Christine Alicino (Chris Johnson).
Question Bridge: Black Males is sponsored by the Bay Area Video Coalition and supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Institute: Campaign for Black Male Achievement, The Tribeca Film Institute, the Sundance Film Institute’s New Frontier Story Lab, the LEF Foundation, The Center for Cultural Innovation, UPM, DualStar Digital, and The California College of the Arts; and in collaboration with transmedia production partner Innovent, Inc. and general production partner farWord, Inc.