“You can learn as much about a culture from reading an ad as you can from reading a book.” – Hank Willis Thomas
Few contemporary visual artists mapping the intersection of capitalism and identity (the ways the former shape the latter) do so with the fierce wit and intelligence of Hank Willis Thomas, perhaps best known for his Unbranded/Branded projects. In Unbranded (2008) he took ads from magazines that target Black readership and reworked them, stripping text and sometimes iconic logos to get at what was/is actually being sold or subtly reinforced. That was followed by the brilliant Branded series (2011) in which he explored the shared/similar practices of the slave trade and the American professional sports industry, manipulating the visual language of advertising to underscore his points.
His latest dissection of race, identity, and the role of the marketplace in shaping attitudes and beliefs is his exhibition Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015, showing at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York through May 23. In it, he tracks the attitudes – what is sacrosanct, what is malleable – about white womanhood as it has been painstakingly constructed / exploited / manipulated / policed over the last century of advertising.
The work underscores the insidious power of advertising to not only elicit desires for products we don’t really need, but the ways in which it also has long turned identity itself (in this case the raced and gendered bodies of white women) into a product that is always just out of reach for the very women (and men) being appealed to in the ads. The ways white (ostensibly hetero) men and black people (men and women) are used as props in the ads speak volumes about real world race and gender attitudes.
In a recent interview with the Daily Beast, Thomas poses a question that encapsulates the overall thrust of his body of work thus far, while also speaking about what specifically links the current exhibition to his past output: “What is an authentic female representation, an authentic black representation, when it’s made up by people who don’t know them and who are motivated by commercial interests?”
Ernest Hardy is a Sundance Fellow whose music and film criticism have appeared in the New YorkTimes, the Village Voice, Vibe, Rolling Stone, LA Times, and LA Weekly. His collection of criticism, Blood Beats Vol. 1: Demos, Remixes and Extended Versions (2006) was a recipient of the 2007 PEN / Beyond Margins Award.