The conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas’ work moves fluidly between politics and pop culture. Here, Thomas — whose show, “Black Survival Guide, Or How to Live Through a Police Riot,” opens at the Delaware Art Museum on July 14 — reflects on how the time spent with his friends playing with G.I. Joe action figures influenced the work he makes today.
I started collecting G.I. Joe figures with Kung Fu Grip when I was 5 years old. They were given to me for my birthday, for holidays, or I’d trade with a friend. I have over a hundred of them.
The way you played with G.I. Joes was shaped by what you understood the character’s history to be. The figures were grown — they were representations of adults, typically in military uniforms, who had specific names, back stories, and jobs. You could manipulate their bodies, bending their arms and knees, rotating their hips and shoulders, and sometimes even their hands and necks. So you become both omniscient, but also a manipulator of existing situations.
It was the early ’80s, this time of gung-ho Americana. Music and culture from the late period of the Cold War was pervasive. Then these G.I. Joe action figures, real American heroes, were giving children license to author scenarios based around violence before they could even read.
There was no consequence to that violence. Death was insignificant. You could always revive Storm Shadow, Duke, Lady Jaye or Hawk by picking them up and bringing them back to life. If you needed someone to get saved, you’d bring them to Doc, who was a black doctor, the only doctor, which was an interesting choice to me.
A group of my friends would get together where I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan to play with G.I. Joes. We’d figure out the set-up — what was happening, who was going to be relevant to the story, how it was different from last time, and which characters would die. That seems like a lot of work. I’d love to watch what it was like now. It’s not like we were actually doing physical activity; it was us telling each other a story collaboratively.
Maybe it seems cliché, but I do a lot of that now, collaborative storytelling. I even used these action figures in 2005 to make a short film with my friend Kambui Olujimi about my cousin’s murder, called “Winter in America.” From the elements of pop culture to the way I critique American identity and values in my work, playing with G.I. Joes was my training ground.
This interview has been edited and condensed.