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Friends Who Are Family


From left: RUJEKO HOCKLEY, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 37; ZENZI THOMAS, 2; HANK WILLIS THOMAS, artist, 45; HANK THOMAS, musician and scientist, 77; and DEBORAH WILLIS, artist and curator, 73. Photographed outside Hockley and Willis Thomas’s home in Brooklyn on Nov. 24, 2020.

For this multigenerational crew of artists, curators and a musician, kinship and collaboration go hand in hand.

From left: RUJEKO HOCKLEY, assistant curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 37; ZENZI THOMAS, 2; HANK WILLIS THOMAS, artist, 45; HANK THOMAS, musician and scientist, 77; and DEBORAH WILLIS, artist and curator, 73. Photographed outside Hockley and Willis Thomas’s home in Brooklyn on Nov. 24, 2020.

Interview by M. H. Miller
Photograph by John Edmonds

April 12, 2021

Deborah Willis: This year, it was important for me to think about lockdown as a framework, and also what it meant at the heart of it: having a 2-year-old granddaughter I couldn’t see and a 98-year-old mother I couldn’t visit. Hank, Ru and I are not only family but friends. Our relationship as collaborators began at the kitchen table, where we discussed shared experiences about representation, and it continues there.

I was always interested in storytelling. I knew early on that I wanted to be a photographer, based on my father’s interest in it and the images I saw in books by Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava. So at the Philadelphia College of Art I ended up studying photography. Then I moved on to graduate school at Pratt in Brooklyn, and later worked as a curator at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, as well as at the Smithsonian. I always asked my professors in college why there were no Black photographers in our history books; my first major project, which has become a lifelong project, was to look for Black photographers. As a result of that, I started organizing exhibitions. I still make photographs myself, but it was important to me mainly to curate shows and to introduce people to Black photographers who are missing from our larger history.

Friends Who Create Together Friends Who Are Muses New Friends Friends Who Are Family Weekend Friends Friends Who Share a Language Best Friends Friends Who Summer Together Old Friends Friends Who Came Up Together Party Friends Friends Who Teach Each Other Friends Who Saw It All Friends Who Inspire Each Other Friends Who Became Adults Together School Friends Clients Who Became Friends Partners, Now Friends Actor Friends Friends Who Cook Together Furry Friends Friends Who Protect One Another Friends Who Make Music Together Hometown Friends Work Friends Mentor/Protégée Friends Friends Who Miss Each Other Friends Who Create Together Friends Who Are Muses New Friends Friends Who Are Family Weekend Friends Friends Who Share a Language Best Friends Friends Who Summer Together Old Friends Friends Who Came Up Together Party Friends Friends Who Teach Each Other Friends Who Saw It All Friends Who Inspire Each Other Friends Who Became Adults Together School Friends Clients Who Became Friends Partners, Now Friends Actor Friends Friends Who Cook Together Furry Friends Friends Who Protect One Another Friends Who Make Music Together Hometown Friends Work Friends Mentor/Protégée Friends Friends Who Miss Each Other

Hank Willis Thomas: I graduated with a master’s in photography and visual and critical studies. (I already had a B.F.A. in photography and Africana studies.) But I didn’t realize I was following in my mother’s footsteps until I was 29 and included in a show called “Frequency” at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2005. That was a place that was prominent in my mother’s life as a curator and as an artist. A lot of the communities she was a part of, I also found myself becoming a part of.

Friendship and collaboration are chosen in a way family isn’t. So if a distinction is to be made, it’s in how we choose and seek out like-minded members of our community. Of course, I learned and absorbed so much from my mom’s work, and from my dad — friendship comes into our relationship by our choosing to continue collaborating beyond that early influence. And as I’m married to Rujeko, who is such a talented curator, we all have a shared language of our chosen crafts. Being able to share that with one another is a gift that isn’t a given within a family. To have the two inextricably intertwined — friendship and family — in the midst of a pandemic has been a beautiful thing. There hasn’t been as much of a feeling of loss or separation.

Interviews have been edited and condensed. Production: Lauren Stocker. Prop stylist: Todd Knopke

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