LOS ANGELES — Over the past year, it’s been fascinating to learn about the sorts of things emerging in rivers that are drying up due to climate change. Dinosaur tracks. Buddhist statues. Human remains. Rivers both carry and conceal. The poet Langston Hughes wrote eloquently about their social significance in “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

“I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” is the title of a screen-printed and UV-printed retroreflective vinyl work by Hank Willis Thomas. Each piece in I’ve Known Rivers, on view at Pace Gallery, is titled after a line from the beautiful Hughes poem, which was written in 1921. In “I’ve seen,” the view indeed looks muddy, an all black work apparently composed of interesting shapes and cutouts. Shine a flashlight at eye level, though, and the work turns golden in the sunset, showing people wearing sunglasses, looking upward, smiling, young and old, in a rich collage.

In “I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it,” a figure leans back, one hand supporting their head; in the background are a golden-black river and dotted pyramids. A black sun shows through in the upper left-hand corner. Flash the light, and those rivers reveal another collage of people, this time more obviously engaged in historic collective action, such as the US Civil Rights Movement. 

“I see myself as a visual cultural archaeologist,” Thomas noted of his work in a video statement about the installation. “And I’m often using archival research as part of my art practice, so there are images from all of these massive collective movements where people often demonstrated that they were human beings through showing up together and challenging the status quo.”

Hank Willis Thomas, “I’ve known rivers” (2023), without flashlight

Part of the joy of these works is how they move in multiple layers. Even without a flashlight, pieces like those in the Ancient, dusky river series represent the rich color-scapes of rivers, which shimmer and glow as they reflect the landscapes around them. In “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” a figure appears to rest in the lush blue waters off the bank. The enveloping natural light and open space of the gallery enhance the vibrancy of these artworks, which stand on their own with this first layer alone. 

The retroreflective material, which beams light directly back to its source, makes the second layer of each piece visible only when you shine the light near your eyes; just a little lower, and this layer’s details barely emerge. Online, the works appear as a binary — flashlight on or flashlight off — but in person I found myself shining the light into different areas, as if searching a real body of water. While Thomas has engaged with retroreflective materials for years, the river theme feels especially apropos, capturing the multifaceted nature of trying to look at and understand a fluctuating body of water.

“We are taught history in a very linear way,” Thomas noted, “but the reality is that people have been moving around for millennia, and each person has their own story. So there’s never a grand narrative about what happened.”

Hank Willis Thomas, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (2023), without flashlight
Hank Willis Thomas, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers” (2023), with flashlight
Hank Willis Thomas, “I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” (2023), without flashlight
Hank Willis Thomas, “I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset” (2023), with flashlight
Close up of retroreflective surface
Installation view of Hank Willis Thomas: I’ve Known Rivers at Pace Gallery, Los Angeles. Pictured: “Ancient, dusky river” (2023)

Hank Willis Thomas: I’ve Known Rivers continues at Pace Gallery Los Angeles (1201 South La Brea Avenue, Mid-Wilshire, Los Angeles) through August 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

AX Mina (aka An Xiao Mina) is an author, artist and futures thinker who follows her curiosity. She co-produces Five and Nine, a podcast about magic, work and economic justice. 

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