Hank Willis Thomas Reanalyzes Everyday Black History

by Shannon Jay

Based on a lecture Hank Willis Thomas gave at the Chrysler Museum in 2015

Hank Willis Thomas’ interest in studying how black people are represented in media begins with Deborah Willis’ exploration of how they were portrayed in photographs. Then a teen skimming through a Philadelphia library, his mother stumbled upon “Sweet Flypaper Life,” featuring poems by Langston Hughes and photographs by Roy DeCarava.

 "Sometimes I See Myself In You" by Deborah Willis, 2009

"Sometimes I See Myself In You" by Deborah Willis, 2009

“This was the first time she saw images of African Americans as she had seen them - as everyday people,” Thomas recalls, noting this is when Willis realized “photography could be used to tell different stories, and to humanize.”

After not being able to find much else on the history of blacks in photography, Willis decided to write her first of several books on the subject entitled “Black Photographers, 1840-1940: An Illustrated Bio-Bibliography.” She went on to win the Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow for her research, and revive a previously unwritten history of the Black experience previously buried.

 "Priceless #1" 2004

"Priceless #1" 2004

“I came to photography and came to appreciate it through her”, Thomas recalled. “Our relationship is very much this conversation between her research and my work as an artist." This bond is illustrated in a piece entitled “Sometime I See Myself in You,” a melding of the mother and son’s faces to create three different portraits. 

Thomas uses the language of advertising, one he believe to be the most powerful in the world, “to talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about.” After the impactful murder of his cousin Songha Willis Thomas, Thomas discussed the “irony of picking the perfect casket for your son being a priceless experience.”

Years later, he revisited photographs taken from his cousin’s funeral with this familiar tagline from MasterCard ads. He describes this particular image in his photo series, “Branded,” as “a way to talk about how, even in mourning, we’re still being marketed to.” Other works in the “Branded” series steer away from taglines and Thomas’ personal experience, shifting to examine the correlation of logos in what he calls an “age of branded consciousness.”

“Logos as our generation’s hieroglyphs...because they are imbedded with so much meaning, that they can actually be used to tell different stories.”

He does this through eye opening imagery, like Nike swooshes scarred several times on a man’s chest, to the shoe company’s Jordan logo hanging from a Timbaland tree. In these pieces, Thomas parallels the branding of slaves to logos currently lining black bodies, or black bodies hanging from trees to hanging from basketball hoops - in the sense of both being a different variation of black men as a spectacle.

Advertisements relating to the history of blacks in America are apart of what Thomas described as, “this way in which [he] can look at an image of one thing, and turn it into a reference to so many other things.”

 "Absolute Power" 2003 & 2016

"Absolute Power" 2003 & 2016

Photos featuring the Absolut vodka logo explore the “creation of blackness...by Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing people.” Thomas recognizes the Us vs. Them mentality categorizing race breeds, noting that, “we’re still allowing that kind of language to define us.” These images tackle the history of institutionalization, from slavery to the prison system.

“I recognize race as a fiction, something that is untrue but dictates so many of our lives.”

While “Branded” reinterprets logos though Thomas’ art, his series “Unbranded” removes these logos and taglines to allow art in advertisements independently tell a new tale. “I’m interested in how things that were status quo at some point shift,” Thomas continued, “and they also change history and how we relate who belongs where and what place.”

Ads from 1915 to present day have all marketing language removed, leaving mainstream depictions of women and African Americans and the “amazing story that’s happened in the images that we buy and discard.”

“Because [women and blacks were] asking for more opportunities,” Thomas noted, “[these ads] keep them in a certain place.” This project, along with all of Thomas’ consumerism commentary, encourages the viewer to always consider how images we buy into on a daily basis affect our deepest ideologies. 

Much of Thomas’ work is the analyzes old images to give new context. A series of bronzed hands cropped from photographs taken throughout history, Thomas said, “draw to defiant voices and gestures in moments of protest when so much is at stake." 6 months after its completion, one sculpture in particular took on a whole new meaning with the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Raise Up” is a row of bronze arms, inspired by a cropped shot of South African boys being stripped search.

“All of a sudden, something that was based off a moment of subjugation 50 years ago is speaking to a moment of uprising and defiance in the 21st century.” 

While commentary of the black experience is prominent in Thomas’ work, his broader focus is any change of perspective, epitomized in his collaborative works. In works like “Zero Hour,” a collaboration with Sanford Biggers, the viewer moves side to side of a frontally blurry image to see it clearer. “I like that idea of work where you have to change your own positioning to see it,” Thomas said. 

 The "Truth Booth" visits Bamiyan Bhudda, blown up by the Taliban in 2001

The "Truth Booth" visits Bamiyan Bhudda, blown up by the Taliban in 2001

He played with the idea of different perspectives in a collaboration with Jim Ricks and Ryan Allexaim called “Truth Booth.” Premiering in Ireland, this interactive piece allowed viewers to tell a camera what Thomas refers to as “their own version of the truth.” “Truth Booth” later traveled around the world to Afghanistan, South Africa, Miami, and even a presidential debate.

The attempt to tell the untold stories of the silenced throughout history is evident in all of Thomas’ work, no matter the medium. Whether it’s removing logos from ads to let the imagery speak for itself, retelling stories from old photos by cropping portions and breeding them with bronzed new life, or even welcoming folks to voice their own point of view in Thomas’ interactive installations, viewers walk away considering a fresh, new perspective.

Even if they remain unchanged, at least they looked at things a little differently, if only for a moment.