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Art and Activism with Artist, Raymond Thomas

“Our Tomorrow Happened Yesterday” is the fourth in an ongoing series of art exhibitions curated and created by artist Raymond A. Thomas. These exhibits explore the notions of Blackness, Black culture, and art activism in these times.

The St. Louis native has cultivated his passion into a vibrant artistic practice that continues to expand. Thomas attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he studied painting, filmmaking, and graphic design. After graduating, Thomas was hired by Chicago-based Johnson Publishing Company Inc., where he served as art director and creative manager for over 23-years. Thomas is currently the creative art director for the Jazz Institute of Chicago. In 2021 Thomas created an art wearable and merchandise brand HEROISM. He is also a resident artist at the Bronzeville Artist Lofts in Chicago.

Raymond A. Thomas desires to not only expand our capacity for cultural enlightenment, but he also attempts to create a “virtual” visual portal in time and space, with the understanding that in the exploration of our past or other possible dimensions, we may find important information or tools to help us navigate in this these unprecedented times. Furthermore, Thomas wants this new series of mix-media creations to manifest as a visual catalyst for confronting injustice while promoting a paradigm shift of equity, access, healing, and social change. He states, “These works were created to introduce audiences to new ways of (re)visualizing and (re)contextualizing themselves in regards to issues of race, culture, and justice.

The Resurection of Tupac Shakur

Chicago Defender: When did you know you wanted to become an artist?

Raymond Thomas: “I have always known that I was an artist or maker or creative. My earliest memories are of me creating. My ability to tell my stories and explore my imagination through art was discovered early and nurtured by my mother, a creative person herself. I was blessed with this gift at birth, I must say. I have never wanted to do anything else or be anything else but an artist, and through the grace of the Creator, I have never had to.”

Chicago Defender: What inspired your latest collection” “Our Tomorrow Happened Yesterday”?

Raymond Thomas: “My latest series of works, “Our Tomorrow Happened Yesterday,” is my creative response to the last tumultuous 18-plus months. For us all, 2021 and beyond has been an unprecedented time of tribulation and awakenings, with the arrival of a deadly global pandemic, the rise and fall of Donald Trump, and the worldwide social uprising after the senseless murder of brother George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis. Like the entire world during this time, I was gripped with uncertainty and doubt.

The question that had continuously haunted my mind during this past year was simply, in the midst of all this and despite everything, was “HOW DO WE WIN!?” The revelation I received after much meditation was that it would take us (Black people in particular) traveling both mentally and spiritually to a place we have never been before, but once were, to bring back that which we need to overcome the trials and oppression we have endured since 1619 without ceasing. In this spirit of Sankofa, I decided I would attempt to create, in this new body of works, a virtual “portal,” a gateway into other spaces, times, or alternate realities. In Africa, an image of a bird looking backward over its tail represents the Sankofa symbol: which means “Go back and fetch it.” With this understanding and spirit, this new series, “Our Tomorrow Happened Yesterday,” came to be.

Chicago Defender: How would you describe yourself as an artist and your style of art?

Raymond Thomas: “Well, My art discipline involves me examining the complex realities of race and self-identity and how they interweave through the tears and triumphs of the African-American experience. As a maker, storyteller, and transformer of spaces, my process is improvisational yet highly deliberate in the application. By applying these jazz-inspired tenants, I endeavor to create both spontaneity and structure simultaneously. I also attempt to provide a positive vibration by passionately engaging life’s crossroads where spirituality, culture, and community meet. I utilize a variety of art mediums, painting, cinema, and digital art, to combat the subversive effects of the mass media’s ongoing historical campaign of degradation against Black and Brown people.

Chicago Defender: What do you believe the purpose of your art is?

Raymond Thomas: “The purpose of my art, ultimately, is to be of service to my people. I realized early that my predestination as an artist is directly linked with my love for my community and the burden I feel for our society. I believe that in these times, I have a duty as an artist of color to bring to my people and the world artworks that edify and enlighten. As a teacher, I also encourage my students to believe that their artistic contribution to humanity is valuable and very much needed. I want them to know that by adding their small chip to this great mosaic called life, that their honest, heartfelt expression will make the vast image a little clearer for everyone. We are travelers all, and in this brief space of time in which we physically occupy this plane of reality, what we leave behind, our works and deeds can be criticized or canonized for many years to come. I can only hope that my art and the works of all who would learn from me is experienced, speaks the truth, and is deemed relevant to the human cause.”

Chicago Defender: Who are some of your influences?

Raymond Thomas: “My family and my mother particularly are my greatest life influences. Artistically, I have so many in so many different genres of making, from Stevie Wonder, Prince, Spike Lee, to Romare Bearden…I am greatly influenced by the art of the Black Arts Movement’s revolutionary image-makers who apply some of these same jazz tenants to their creations that I do. My favorite are the legendary artists of AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists). I lovingly embrace the African-American art aesthetic. Our use of color, composition, texture, tone, rhythm, movement, and language are unique, with traditions that can be traced back to the beginnings of humankind. My work endeavors to expand upon these great and often under-appreciated legacies of making while broadening the multi-layered conversations of diversity that ultimately reaffirms the humanity of us all.

Chicago Defender: What do you enjoy most about creating?

Raymond Thomas: “My art practice is an ongoing exploration for truth and enlightenment. I am daily confronting the infinite possibilities of my imagination with fearless passion. I really enjoy this journey every time I begin the art-making process. This irrepressible need to express myself has always been a love of mine and a haven from the difficult realities that can sometimes beset a young Black man-child reared in this society. But as I got older, a very strange thing occurred; my art began to mirror the troubled world from which I tried to escape. This led me to examine where I and my gifts fit in these times and how I began to understand my purpose.

Chicago Defender: How important is activism in your art?

Raymond Thomas: “Activism is everything in regards to my art practice. My art and activism are intertwined almost symbiotically, as one cannot live without the other. It’s my artistic mission to engage the people. This mission encourages community participation, but my process is often incumbent upon me partnering with the people in the conception, creation, and exhibition of works. There is no greater commitment to the community than to share in the experience of making something that brings the residents to a place of renewed joy and hope. I witnessed this, partnering with many communities nationwide as curator, art director, filmmaker, and fine artist.

Chicago Defender: What do you hope audiences take away from your latest collection?

Raymond Thomas: “Within the artworks created for “Our Tomorrow Happened Yesterday,” I can only hope that there I, hidden between the brushstrokes, a powerful catalyst for confronting injustice while promoting a paradigm shift of equity, access, healing, and social change. These works were created to introduce audiences to new ways of (re)visualizing and (re)contextualizing themselves and challenging one’s cultural sensibilities. We also seek to create visual counter-narratives that will broaden the conversations of self-identity and purpose for our future. If audiences cannot conceive transcendental extra-dimensional time travel, at the very least, while we continue to fight for justice, I hope the art moves people to find the fortitude within themselves to become conduits of truth, love and light. As living portals, emitting positive energy and vibrations that we constantly and collectively share, not only to uplift our own mighty race but to become examples for future generations and for this entire ailing planet to follow.”

“Our Tomorrow Happened Yesterday” opens Friday, October 15 at Blanc Gallery, 4445 King Drive, Chicago, IL. The exhibition runs through November 21. For more on the artist, Raymond A. Thomas, visit his website at www.raymondathomasstudios.com or his store at www.heroismbrand.com

 

Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20 and @DanieSandersOfficial.

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