HANK WILLIS THOMAS (b. 1976, Plainfield, New Jersey, lives and works in New York) I AM THE GREATEST, Mixed Media, 2012, The Alfond Collection of Contemporary Art, Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, Gift of Barbara ’68 and Theodore ’68 Alfond, 2016.3.18.
Hank Willis Thomas is a New Jersey-born artist who earned a dual bachelor’s degree in photography and Africana studies from New York University. Later, he earned a Master of Fine Arts in photography and a second Master’s degree in visual criticism from the California College of Arts.
This piece recreates and reframes a historic artifact--a lapel pin flaunting the iconic phrase “I am the Greatest.” On the backside, you can see notice that the artist even reproduced the safety pin mechanism! There was clearly much care put into this sculpture. This tactic of appropriating and replicating elements of popular culture is characteristic of the artist’s work.
Boxer Muhammad Ali made this declaration of greatness in 1963, one year before winning the world heavyweight championship title. Looking at the work, there are three rows of text; the words “I, am, and the” are displayed in red. The word “GREATEST” stands alone on the bottom in black.
It’s no coincidence that the words “The” and “GREATEST” catch the eye of any viewer. The Greatest is a larger-than-life proclamation for an individual to make. It asserts that this person is the most superior individual on the planet. As such, the saying also reflects the personality and impact of Muhammed Ali on American culture and history. Ali’s fame grew to monumental status, and he became an icon in the African American community during the Civil Rights movement.
The pin, whose size is mammoth as far as pins go, explores larger social issues in its alterations of the original object. It embodies an immense directive that urges the viewer to stand up and triumph over any stumbling block--particularly, those generated by society. In doing so, the pin acts as a mediator by which viewers can question and subvert prescribed ideas about personal identity, gender, and race.