HANK WILLIS THOMAS
“My work brings history forward through framing our experience of race, class, and gender as conditioned by popular culture then and now. Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of ‘black history’ as somehow separate from American history, and to reinstate it as indivisible from the totality of past social, political, and economic occurrences that make up contemporary American culture” —Hank Willis Thomas
Hank Willis Thomas is an artist who gets people talking—about pop culture, history, and race. For his series: Branded, he co-opted the language and logos of advertisements to produce images that are both personal and provocative. In one piece, the Nike swoosh symbol is etched like a scar on the side of a man’s bald head. In another, the famous Mastercard “Priceless” slogan appears across a photograph of a family at a graveside funeral. “Gold chain: $400,” the text says. “Bullet: 60 cents. Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless.” The family in the photo is the artist’s own, and they are grieving for his cousin, who was “murdered over a petty commodity,” a gold chain. Thomas’s images can make you uncomfortable, but they raise important questions about violence, identity, and generalizations reinforced by decades of advertisements.
The work is powerful and irreverent, says guest curator Vince Musi. Thomas isn’t a journalist, but “he’s worried about what you want journalism to be worried about–not what celebrities are doing but about major issues.” He believes that photography is a medium of continuous manipulation, particularly in the advertising industry, and he takes that manipulation one step further in his work. In one series, he removes all headlines and text from 1960s magazine ads that feature African-Americans. By stripping away the words, he reveals images that are both humorous and horrifying; images that at a core level, he says, “are a reflection of the way culture views itself or its aspirations.”
Born in 1976 in New Jersey, Thomas began taking photographs at the age of 12. He is the son of photographer and photographic historian Deborah Willis and he grew up in New York around influential photographers like Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson. Hank Willis Thomas received his BFA from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and his MFA in photography, along with an MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts in San Francisco. He has had exhibitions in galleries and museums spanning the world—the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, Galerie Anne De Villepoix in Paris, the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. His work appears in public collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Brooklyn Museum, the High Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Art, Houston. Pitch Blackness, his monograph, was published in 2008. His collaborative projects have been featured at the Sundance Film Festival and installed publicly at the Oakland International Airport and The Oakland Museum of California.