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Art imitates nation: A conversation with Hank Willis Thomas, artist behind ‘The Embrace’

April 8 @ 6:00 pm

“Racism is the most successful advertising campaign of all time.”
— Hank Willis Thomas

The American national narrative relies on stories of overcoming a racial past — presenting a country continuously outwitting injustice. Integral to the successful adoption of this narrative is the hypervisible representation of Black people and culture in the public eye.

Award-winning conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas experiments with representation and national narrative. His art shows that if aesthetic representation is necessary to craft a national narrative, it can disrupt one just as well. Thomas’ works — which span photography, sculpture, installation and textile — interrogate how art, systemic racism and the commodification of Black struggle became intertwined with American culture. Among his permanent installations is ‘The Embrace’, memorializing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Boston Commons.

On April 8, join us for a conversation between Hank Willis Thomas and Sarah Elizabeth Lewis, John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

In the style of a fireside chat, this conversation will explore questions including: How does art shape and reflect narratives around race in the United States? How does power affect the way we express ourselves? And how might art contribute to a more just, equitable society?

This conversation is hosted by the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project (IARA) and the Institute of Politics at the JFK Jr. Forum — Harvard’s premier arena for political discussion.


Hank Willis Thomas, Conceptual Artist

Hank Wilis Thomas is conceptual artist working primarily with themes related to perspective, identity, commodity, media, and popular culture. His work has been exhibited globally. Select collaborative projects include Question Bridge: Black Males and For Freedoms. Thomas’s public art practice includes permanent artworks around the country, including The Embrace (2023) in Boston. Thomas was the 2022 U.S. Department of State Medal of Arts honoree from the Office of Art in Embassies, Washington DC.

Sarah Elizabeth Lewis is an art and cultural historian and founder of the Vision & Justice initiative. Her research focuses on the intersection of visual representation, racial justice, and democracy in the United States from the nineteenth century through the present. She is the John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities and Associate Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University, where she serves on the Standing Committee on American Studies and Standing Committee on Women, Gender, and Sexuality.


Stream the panel discussion live via the Institute of Politics’ YouTube. Harvard ID holders can register to attend in-person in the Fainsod Room (third floor, adjacent to JFK Jr. Forum). 

Date: Monday, April 8
Time: 6:00-7:00PM ET
Cost: Free

Sign up to the IARA newsletter for updates. With any questions, please reach out to IARA@hks.harvard.edu.

About the series

Art, entertainment, and sports shape American life. As cultural pillars, they reflect who we are, what we discuss, and which stories we remember. For better or worse, they form how we see each other — and how we see ourselves.

During the 2023-2024 academic year, the Institutional Antiracism and Accountability Project (IARA) is partnering with the Institute of Politics (IOP) to host a series of three talks by nationally recognized speakers addressing the theme ‘Culture of Change: racial equity in art, entertainment, and sports’.

This Speaker Series will explore themes including art as a form of protst, the value of entertainment in shaping political discourse, and the historical reckoning of cultural institutions with their legacies of injustice. Anyone can tune in via livestream, and Harvard ID holders are invited to attend in-person at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum — Harvard’s premier arena for political speech, discussion, and debate.


The Institutional Antiracism and Accountability (IARA) Project promotes antiracism as a core value and institutional norm through rigorous research and real-time policy analysis. We aim to move organizations from words to action to accountability by critically evaluating their policies and practices. Learn more at iara.hks.harvard.edu.

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