Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi are expanding the scope of their recent collaborative animated video project, 'Winter in America'. The latest installment in this venture is a series of color prints based on the digitally-rendered depiction of the last five minutes of the life of Thomas' cousin, Songha Thomas Willis. Songha was tragically murdered on February 2, 2000 in Philadelphia, PA. An attempted robbery in the parking lot of a nightclub quickly escalated into a deadly altercation that ended his life at the youthful age of twenty-eight. The series of photographs have since been compiled into a book, also entitled 'Winter in America'. (1) The composition of medium-format stills were taken during the filming of the stop-motion animation video, where the artists have recreated the scene of the crime. The photographs consist of G.I. Joe action figures posed in a faux winter environment. Thomas and Olujimi documented and studied the details of the actual site, and positioned the action figures according to the police report and eyewitness accounts. They created a small-scale replica of the nightclub exterior complete with snow, streetlights, a chain link fence, and cars with twenty-inch rims.
It is not uncommon for children to role-play with dolls as a means of communicating deeply repressed trauma. Thomas and Olujimi are employing the naivete of this psychological method as they work through the circumstances of Songha's death. By casting the action figures in the place of people, the plastic vessels become puppets at the mercy of their puppeteers. The haunting image 'Lawrence Takes Aim' presents the audience with a critical moment. The photograph depicts the menacing silhouette of a gunman, Lawrence, as he positions himself to pull the trigger. The stark white background accentuates the outline of the phantasmal figure, and suspends the blurred motion of his arm. Although Songha's body is absent from the scene, the title suggests his presence outside of the frame. Thomas and Olujimi capture the subtle gesture of this tragic confrontation that will eventually end in murder.
The reliance on child-like materials critiques the ways in which boys are encouraged to express their masculinity by offering the viewer a sense of make believe. The plastic action figures and model cars are representations of boyhood. At an early age, miniature automobiles and simulated violence are perceived as appropriate forms of play. Young men become playfully indoctrinated to relate to each other as mobile, gun-toting war commandos. The premature exposure to materialism and overvalued aggression has promoted a false consciousness of the ideal male figure in American society. It is not uncommon for boys to grow up believing that the respectability and success of a man depends on the bounty of his possessions. Thomas and Olujimi's use of toy objects dispels these virtues as myth, and implicates the murder of his cousin as a painful symptom of the dysfunctional masculine archetype. In addition to providing a social commentary on gender roles and gratuitous violence, Winter In America expands on the artist's ongoing exploration of consumerism and value. The series is an ominous parable about the value of material things prevailing over the value of human life.
Kalia Brooks (c) 2006
1. Hank Willis Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America (San Francisco: 81 Press, 2006)
Hank Willis Thomas lives in San Francisco and New York City. He participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program in October 2005. His collaborator Kambui Olujimi lives and works in Brooklyn, NY. His website can be found at http://www.hankwillisthomas.com/.
Kalia Brooks is a curator and writer. She is currently writing a book on a documentary project in Philadelphia, PA. The project is a collaboration with Hank Willis Thomas.