This fountain is a satirical look at the big myth of a post-racial America,” said Raymond Thomas as we looked at one of his sculpture installations, a sleek, copper water fountain labeled “Post Blacks Only.” This piece, along with thirteen other aesthetically beautiful but thematically horrific sculptures, paintings, and assemblages, is part of Thomas’s most recent multimedia exhibition, “PERCEPTION/REALITY (In the Age of Deception),” currently showing at the Blanc Gallery in Bronzeville.
I met a bundled-up Thomas on a Friday morning at the Blanc Gallery as the first snow of the year fell along King Drive. Dressed head-to-toe in black with a corduroy beret, Thomas gave me a tour of exhibition that has been several years in the making, his most recent inspiration the August shooting of eighteen year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.
Thomas’s exhibition is alive with bright colors, sharp angles, and radical messages about contemporary race politics in America. A semi-abstract painting titled “Envy Not Thy Oppressor (proverbs 3:31),” shows a black figure holding a gun made of hundred-dollar bills to his head in front of a blood-red backdrop. Another image is of the late rapper Tupac Shakur as president of the United States with the caption “What our young prince could have been.” A movie poster advertising a film called “Obama,” shows a photoshopped image of President Obama with his hips cocked, dressed in a leather disco suit. The caption reads: “The Crackers wanted their country back, he gave them healthcare, hugs, and DRONE ATTACKS.”
“People have adapted this label of ‘post-black,’ because we have a black president, but there’s no post-racial America,” Thomas said. “I see [racism] in institutionalized ways: health, wealth, education, and the penal system. The penal system is one of the most heinous atrocities on earth, and everyone should be beyond outraged but we just don’t consider it. Some people try to say that institutional racism does not exist. And so you’ve got this group of blacks who have adapted this idea of being ‘post-black’ meaning they have evolved, which I feel is a very dangerous thing to do.”
Most of the pieces incorporate some form of text challenging the belief that racism in America is over. Phrases like “Don’t Shoot,” “Free-Dumb,” “Neo-Negro,” “Underground Railroad,” and “It’s be Post-Black” are scribbled, stenciled, or painted on canvases, mirrors, mannequins, pieces of wood, and the American flag.
Thomas is exceptionally well rounded as an artist, skilled in everything from filmmaking to bronze cast etching. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1965, Thomas came to Chicago to study visual art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1984, but insisted on training in multimedia rather than focusing on a single form.
“I’m an interdisciplinary artist, as the label is now,” Thomas said. “But when I went to the Art Institute, the departments were like warring factions. Now the whole interdisciplinary mantra is this ‘high’ thing, you know? But I’ve always done everything.”
After graduating from the SAIC, Thomas served for several decades as art director for Ebony and Jet magazines, as well as for the South Side Community Art Center in Bronzeville. This year, Thomas received an IAP grant from the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, which he used to fund “PERCEPTION/REALITY.”
When asked about the current state of the art community on the South Side, Thomas was enthusiastic. “There is definitely a community of artists that I am comrades with, particularly here in Bronzeville,” he said. “There’s nowhere in this country that you can go and find institutions that are exhibiting so many African-American artists within a mile radius. You can’t go to New York and find this. It’s a pulsating group of artists who are working hard to exclaim the humanity of the African-American experience and do work that touches the soul.”
If Thomas’s claim is that “racism in America is thriving more than ever before” through institutions like the education and prison systems, then it seems that his response is for the African-American community to band together though its music, art, and culture, instead of breaking through into factions based on wealth, education-level, and skin-color.
“Willie Lynch, in his  letter to slave owners, talked about the indoctrination of a separatist kind of in-fighting that they could breed into African Americans, pitting the old against the young, the women against the men, the light-skinned against the dark-skinned,” Thomas said. “So I think when you come up with things like ‘post-black’ and say that you have evolved from just being a regular black person, then you cause these schisms to arise again.”
I asked Thomas about the Curtis Mayfield lyric that he put on the top of his artist’s statement: “Why can’t we brothers protect one another? No one’s serious, and it makes me furious. Don’t be misled.”
Thomas recited the lyric back to me, and said, “I mean, that’s really what this show is all about. As African-Americans…we have horrific things like the murder of Mike Brown, but within that murder, we have the galvanizing of a community that stands up to fight. I’ve tried to create something that by looking at it, it could frighten you, and you could see it as beautiful as well.”
Blanc Gallery, 4445 S. Martin Luther King Dr. Closing event December 12, Hours by appointment. (773)373-4320. blancchicago.com