An Archaeology of Advertising: Hank Willis Thomas opens “Unbranded” at the Block [Video]

Over 350 guests joined artist Hank Willis Thomas at the Block Museum on April 14, 2018 for a talk on his politically charged work and the Block Museum exhibition Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded. The exhibition brings together selections from two bodies of work: Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008 and Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015. By digitally removing all text and product names from advertising the artist allows the resulting images to stand alone, asking the viewer to question the assumptions underlying popular media, both past and present. The artist’s talk was followed by a conversation with Huey Copeland, professor, Art History, Northwestern University.

Watch the Opening Lecture


Excerpts from the Lecture

Hank Willis Thomas:   There’s a book called Everything but the Burden, edited by Greg Tate with an essay by Carl Hancock Rux in it, and he says, “There’s something called black in America and there’s something called white in America, and I know them when I see them but I will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them, because they are not real even though I have a very real place in my daily way of seeing, a fundamental relationship to my ever revolving understanding of history, and a critical place in my relationship to humanity.” And, this wrestling with this, both, the notion of who I am externally, what people see, and then when I look outside and I just see the world, I don’t see … If I do see my brown hands, that I notice that they’re not black. I am constantly feeling the need to challenge all of society’s rules about how I can be and who I should be. I also find it sometimes challenging to understand what authenticity is and where to place my certain feelings around them, especially because I recognize how advertising is the most powerful ubiquitous language in the world and it shapes many things that we see about ourselves and the way that we value others.


I was really interested in how I could look at the language of advertising and talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about. There’s a poet, Sonia Sanchez, who recently I heard her speak and she said, “You’ve got to deny the terms that they give you, because as soon as they start telling you who you are, that’s when they start to tell you kind of what you care about, what you do, and what you, you know, they define your life.” I think a lot about that as what I think about my relationship to race.

So, the project is called Unbranded: Reflections of Black from 1968 to 2008. I took two ads for every year from 1968 to 2008, and I removed all the advertising information in a way to track blackness as an idea over the course of these 40 years. I chose 1968 as a symbolic end of the Civil Rights movement when Martin Luther King and JFK and RFK were assassinated, but then I just chose 2008 not knowing that yet another Chicagoan would be elected president 40 years later.


So, the series was kind of for me this learning about myself, about our history, and about our culture, and I started to think, again I guess, about other moments in American history. Because, at the time, prior to 1968 African Americans weren’t really featured in ads. At the same time, it was 2015 and I was thinking about women in this country still have not had the right to vote for 100 years yet. To think that half the population in this democracy didn’t have the right to vote, and considering that another large portion, African Americans and Native Americans in the kind of occupied land in the Southwest, also didn’t have the right to vote, you recognize that we have not been a democracy for very long, if at all.

These are the things that I was really curious about investigating. So, I wanted to really look at American history through another lens in a different timeline with the Century of White Women series.


Huey Copeland:    I think even when it seems like we’re getting further and further away from certain kinds of tropes, they very much are still with us because in many ways the structures of inequality have not shifted either. So, I think the way in which the game of advertising wants to play itself, it helps produce a certain kind of illusion of progress that allows us to comfortably go back to that. What I think you are able to do in your work so powerfully is to show that those structural logics remain and persist and are kind of getting produced in these different ways over time.

Hank Willis Thomas:  Well, advertising does rely on prejudice, you know?

Huey Copeland:  Yeah.  I so love that amazing and robust introduction that you gave to us behind the logic of the two series. I think what Janet has so brilliantly done in this exhibition, the Block by bringing them together is to really allow us to think about some of the ways in which the visual production of white femininity and the visual production of blackness, particularly black femininity, are drawing upon similar tropes, different tropes, in terms of how they’re affected by economies of racialization. So, I just wonder about thinking about how racial difference in the production of black women versus white women in these two series, and kind of the insights that you’ve seen as you worked on them.


Hank Willis Thomas:       Yeah, I struggle often to find my own freedom in relationships because up until, really, Michael Jordan and, maybe, Mohammad Ali, there weren’t very many transracial figures in popular culture; meaning that people that didn’t look like them could also identify and relate to them. I guess my concern is that I am forced to, just because someone has a similar skin complexion to me and possibly a similar presumed gender identity as me, that I have to then claim them and their entire essence as mine. I believe that you can’t tell what color I am by looking at my skin, I’m a rainbow. I am a culmination of all my life experiences.

Huey Copeland:  I think too in the Century of White Women it’s very much, of course, focused on white women, and, of course, in the Unbranded series it’s a different focus, but I think one could argue that there is a certain kind of feminist imperative or logic in terms of how you’re thinking about approaching these images trying to deconstruct them. Really I think in terms of how you’re focusing on white women as this site of madness or hysteria. I just wonder if you could talk about, maybe, some of the artistic influences, the practices that you look to in trying to critically engage this image world.

Hank Willis Thomas: Yeah, I have to start with my mother who is a photo historian and a researcher who helped me to realize that we create history, literally by choosing to point our fingers toward something. Her field of interest was African American photography, and mine is advertising because I cannot avoid it.


Hank Willis Thomas:  Popular culture is probably my muse even though I think there are many artists who appropriate, like Carrie Mae Weems, and Laurie Simmons, the picture generation who did help me to recognize that my art could, in part, be the using and the coordinating and the rethinking of other objects. Because, once you call something art, you’re allowed to think creatively about things you that you already know.

Huey Copeland: Yeah, entirely. I think too what you were speaking to us today in many ways is also about being drawn to certain kind of images, but also having a dis-identification with them. Like, being like, “Yes, that’s me”, but also kind of, “No, that’s not me.” There is so often, I think, in the works in the show where we really get to see the primal sites of the fantasies, the advertising things it’s drawing on.

Hank Willis Thomas: I think sometimes each of us have our limitations and, for me, I recognize that what I can do within my own work is like look at the past and bring it closer to the present. I haven’t yet gotten to the place where I can really imagine the future. There’s a great artist from South Africa, Nicolas Lobos, says that we have to live in the future that we want because that way we won’t be surprised when we get there. This idea of like not waiting for this imaginary future, being like this is the future. I’m hopefully building toward that.


Images from the Opening


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