HANK WILLIS THOMAS with Allie Biswas
Hank Willis Thomas has spent the last 10 years using the history of advertising as a primary reference. Working directly with print adverts, the artist uses his technique of “unbranding”—where every trace of advertising information is erased, leaving only the original image—to challenge perceptions of identity, commodity, and representation. Thomas’s fifth solo exhibition with Jack Shainman Gallery, Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915–2015, on view through May 23, 2015, occupies the gallery’s two spaces. This new body of work continues to explore Thomas’s interest in how we respond to commercial images that have been emptied of their original function, and removed from their intended context.
Allie Biswas (Rail): Adverts have formed a central role in your work. Where did this interest come from, and at what point in your life did you begin to recognize the implications of this kind of imagery?
Hank Willis Thomas: I would say I first became interested in ads as a very, very young child, as almost all of us are. Those of us who grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s are probably more influenced and hyper-aware of advertising than previous generations. So I guess I would say that as far back as I can remember I appreciated advertising as a language, and as a brilliant medium for exposing and sharing ideas.
Rail: When did the process of examining adverts in depth begin? Was it when you were studying art at college?
Thomas: Yes, basically as a student. Probably part of my ambition was to become an advertising photographer. I studied photography at NYU and some of the first jobs I did were assisting advertising photographers and commercial photographers. Also, when I graduated I worked at Saturday Night Live’s film unit where they sometimes made these fake commercials. I did an internship with The Chris Rock Show, where they also did that. But in the earlier jobs, I was assisting on adverts for Victoria’s Secret, DKNY, and Tommy Hilfiger. Being part of the crew, you see a different side of things. I recall realizing how much work was being done to make something seem normal or trivial. That fascinated me.
Rail: When you were working as part of these advertising teams, would you say that you were looking at what they were producing as an outsider? Were you critical in your perspective?
Thomas: Unless you’ve got a camera in your hand, or you’re in front of the camera, you can’t help but look around and think about all of the coordination, all the people that are coming together to make this thing. Most of what you are doing is about setting something up, or about dressing it up.
Rail: What about more specifically in relation to the conceptual aspect of the adverts? The way that you approach adverts now within your work is distinctly political. You manipulate them to make a statement or raise a question, for example. Were you applying that way of thinking to these adverts? Were you looking at an advert for DKNY and thinking, who is this for and what are the problems with it?
Thomas: All I was really thinking was, wow, there are 20 people in this room, and it’s all just to make two people look like they are relaxing in bed. It was more the practical side of things. Why was there so much effort going into making something seem—you know, there are these two models who are already presumably beautiful, right? All that kind of pomp and circumstance, and organization and staff—the setup for an advert to show a couple in bed in their underwear. So I think that was just fascinating to me, to see all that goes into making Laetitia Casta or Heidi Klum or Adriana Lima seem beautiful.
Rail: You were still thinking critically about photography, though.
Thomas: Yes, I was thinking critically about photography at that time, how there is as much going on outside of the frame of the camera as there is in the frame of a photograph. That is what a lot of my work was like when I was at college. I was just hyper-aware of things around me. Having those other jobs at SNL and The Chris Rock Show helped, where the adverts were still commercial, but were making fun of that form of commerce. I think doing all of that stuff at the same time probably was what helped me to formulate my thoughts and approaches. I’ve also since then shot ads myself, worked for friends on ads, and been in ads. It’s kind of a crazy world.
Rail: When did you have these jobs?
Thomas: It was for a couple of years. From ’98 to 2000.
Rail: B®anded was your first major work. Did you make this directly after finishing college?
Thomas: That was around 2003 to 2004. In my mind there was no relation, ironically.
Rail: So there was a small gap between working for these commercial companies and making your first important photographs that employed an advertising style and the technique of appropriation. What happened during this transitional phrase? How did you arrive at B®anded?
Thomas: I was in graduate school, and I was reading a book called Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism (1999). It talked about how Nike went from being a $10 million company when he signed, to being a $10 billion company 20 years later, and how all of these industries expanded their ability to market Michael Jordan. I was thinking about black bodies. Bodies like his would have been traded on a market at a different period in time. Now when these bodies are traded today I was thinking about how much money is made from them. So we go from slaves being branded as a sign of ownership, to black bodies today being branded as a way to make money. These were the things that I was thinking about and reading about.
Rail: That was your real impetus, then, to go and make your own photographs.
Thomas: Yeah. I started thinking about logos as our generation’s hieroglyphs, and how they can be imbedded with so much meaning, and I really wanted to play off of that.
Rail: What do you think logos mean at this point in time? Has their role changed as such?
Thomas: I think the graphic logos that became so popular are somewhat less popular now. Logos are also just more integrated into our lives. Nike is no longer an apparel company. It is a computer company, and a software company, and a lifestyle company. When I open up my phone, it is already branded, and so I’m branded from the moment I wake up every morning. Then I open the apps, and I’m using corporations as a portal to actually interact with other people. So I think, in a certain way, our lives have become more intertwined with logos, and the language of advertising has become intimately engaged in popular culture.
Rail: You have appropriated the Nike swoosh as a scar on a male body (“Branded Head” , and “Scarred Chest” ), and it is also shown on the clothing of athletes you have photographed (“Basketball & Chain” , and “Football and Chain” ). I wonder if, particularly in those earlier works, the logo was at its strongest, in visual terms. Has the potency of the swoosh even decreased?
Thomas: Well, Michael Jordan isn’t playing any more. [Laughter.] There is just so much more to compete with now because of the explosion of the Internet. You can now sell the same products without having to put the brand onto somebody in a big way. You can just put a couple of colors together and you’ll basically trigger an idea or an image that’s related to a corporate brand. Almost all of us walk around advertising. You’re advertising right now.
Rail: That’s true.
Thomas: And I noticed your watch.
Rail: This is old.
Thomas: It’s an advertisement though. It just may be more subtle. You said, “This is old.” That’s pretty good. [Laughs.] “This isn’t an ad, this is old.”
Rail: Would you say that you are—either consciously or unconsciously—looking out for what people are “advertising” through their clothing and so on?
Thomas: Yes. But maybe I do it subconsciously, particularly when we are talking about this project or any of my related work.
Rail: The next series you made was Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968–2008. This was the first time that you had solely used adverts—already established images—to generate a body of work.
Thomas: Yes. At that time someone gave me an advert, because they had seen B®anded. They told me that I should do something with it.
Rail: What was the advert?
Thomas: They gave me an ad for a Toyota Rav4. I’ll show it to you actually. It’s funny how somebody can just give you something and it changes your life forever.
Rail: So they showed you something that then instigated a strong response?
Thomas: I think it’s more that I was making work that was about branding and logos, and things like that, and they gave me this ad and I just thought, what can be done with this? After looking at it for three or four years, I started to realize that the last thing you would think this ad was selling was a Japanese car. Then around the same time I saw this ad (50 Cent in a Reebok advert from 2005) that was all over New York. I was shocked because—what do you see this as an ad for?
Rail: 50 Cent.
Thomas: But what’s for sale? What is the product?
Rail: I wouldn’t be able to decipher what they’re trying to sell.
Thomas: Do you know who the “they” is?
Thomas: You got that much—because it shows a RBK logo. You see three letters as part of a logo, and that’s all that tells you it’s a Reebok ad. 50 Cent is actually wearing a G-Unit shirt—he’s not even wearing the Reebok product!
Rail: He’s not even wearing the Reebok product in the Reebok ad.
Thomas: I thought it was amazing that we’d reached a point where you can actually sell a product without the product in it, or without someone that is even related to the product, or an idea that is related to the product. So I went online to see what else was being produced. The Reebok series included Yao Ming. He’s shown as a monkey on a basketball. Jay-Z is shown referring to his past as a drug dealer. They have Allen Iverson as the devil. First of all you wonder why the first iteration of this campaign has so many black men, because they’re like five percent of the country’s population. With Yao Ming you have the Chinese giant—he’s about seven feet tall—so they clearly had no idea what to do with that. So let’s just throw everything “oriental” into the image—the rising sun, yin-yang. Reebok was like, we got this! It is crazy that nothing here makes sense. This is what made me start to think about what happens when you look at real ads and you remove the advertising information—the text, the logo. Would you be able to guess what is for sale, and, if you could, it’s probably because of a signifier. So I started this project, Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968–2008, where I’d take an ad and remove all the advertising information. Then I always like to ask people what’s for sale. What’s this ad for?
Rail: What is your methodology for researching and selecting adverts?
Thomas: I just try to find as many ads as possible. With Unbranded I chose 1968 as the start date of the timeframe because it was symbolic of the civil rights movement, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were killed. I ended at 2008 simply because it was 40 years later, but then the series ended up being bookended by the election of Barack Obama.
Rail: How did Unbranded help you to develop your practice?
Thomas: I think it made me realize that there were things that I couldn’t tell in my own images, and that as much as advertising was a great language for me to use, and with which to make statements, it was still limited. What’s interesting to me about adverts as a material is that there are so many voices embedded in the advertisement.
Rail: What about the role of digital manipulation? Your method of altering photographs has been described as “unbranding.” What does the removal of text and logo initiate?
Thomas: It encourages inquisitiveness. It encourages us to really question and evaluate values. What are the things we care about? What are the messages we are trying to articulate? The logo and copywriting distracts you from the real message, which is often more nefarious than we might think. What I love about “unbranding” is that it opens up a conversation on a huge level about what it is that we really care about. Why is this important? How did this become normal? Because presumably, when something has made it to the level of mass media, it has been vetted for public consumption.
Rail: How much are you purposefully aiming for your work to contain a political element?
Thomas: It depends on the work. If we take this sculpture behind us (“Lives of Others” )—it’s based on a photograph of someone standing on top of the Berlin Wall touching someone on the ground when the wall came down. These disembodied arms are a cropped moment—this is similar to how I think about cropping a photograph. I like the idea of referring to what has been left out of any photograph, or any historical document. It is not the whole. It’s what has been prepared and presented, or what has been deemed worth saving, or exhibiting. So I try to point that out in my work, even when I talk about historical things. I think one of the reasons I chose to do more “unbranded” work after B®anded was because it was harder for me to find specific things that would stand the test of time, as far as I could make comments using logos. Whereas with Unbranded it isn’t even me making the comment—I’m just finding things that are already there, and I’m revealing what lies underneath.
Rail: You talked about the impact that Walter LaFeber’s book on capitalism made on you early on. Were there any texts that were influential when you were making Unbranded?
Thomas: Harvey Young has been influential—his book —Embodying Black Experience. I was interested by how the black body functioned as a political landscape. The bodies that were measured and counted and policed, primarily in the 19th century and early 20th century, through slavery—those same bodies were overcoming certain oppressive forces through the agency they demanded in sports and entertainment, although a lot of the history came with it. Roland Barthes’s books Mythologies and Image Music Text and Empire of Signs are important to me. He writes about the images that we consume, through advertising, and how they become integrated into our way of understanding ourselves. Especially in Image Music Text where he deconstructs the advertisement.
Rail: The spaghetti advert is a good example.
Thomas: Exactly, Panzani. So that really had me thinking about what would happen if I literally, visually, did that.
Rail: So literary or cultural texts have often been a significant factor in instigating or developing an idea?
Thomas: Yes. Or, like I said, someone will just give me something and I’ll save it. I’ve been called a packrat before.
Rail: Let’s talk about your current exhibition at Jack Shainman. You’ve taken 100 adverts produced between 1915 and 2015, and “unbranded” them. I’m interested in the way this series deals specifically with how white female identity has been represented, and how “femininity” has been constructed over the past century.
Thomas: I think one of the things I’ve come to understand and accept is that it’s all mythology, right? We’ve become more accustomed to acknowledging racism, but we also need to recognize gender, as we know it, in mythology. But this series is like Unbranded, as in, that wasn’t about black men, per se, it was about people. This project just allowed me to explore another side of what I feel is the same coin. One of the pieces that really stuck out to me was this advert from 1979, which is part of Unbranded (“So Glad We Made It” ). What is this for?
Thomas: And what things do you see happening in this ad?
Rail: Social interaction?
Thomas: Yes. But what are the men doing?
Rail: They’re playing backgammon.
Thomas: And what are the women doing?
Rail: Cooing over them.
Thomas: Right. And then you look at the woman on the left.
Rail: She’s feeding the man, literally. Placing a burger near to his mouth.
Thomas: And then you look at the guy, and what is positioned immediately next to his right hand? A burger!
Rail: A burger that he can’t pick up himself, because he’s too busy playing backgammon. So it’s naturally the woman’s duty to feed him and make sure he is comfortable as he sweats it out over backgammon.
Thomas: So bizarre! They are supposed to be middle-class black people. So they’re doing something that middle class people do, but it is the men who are playing and the women are only allowed to watch them. And she has to feed him a burger, even though he has his own burger. This is another advert, which is in the current show (“The Results Are Obvious” [1925/2015]). Here is the original advert.
Rail: It says “Where Do Crows Feet Come From?”
Thomas: The product is for eye health—correcting your eyesight. So they are suggesting that crows feet are a result from having bad eyesight, and that might motivate women to have their eyes tested. I noticed that we get to this point after the Depression where there is this period of luxury. Here is another advert that is in the exhibition (“Tragedy of the Young Scrub Woman” [1932/2015]). This is the original version.
Rail: It’s amazing how much text there is on this one, a couple of paragraphs in really small font.
Thomas: Did you read it? It’s an advert for floor polish, and they are marketing it as a beauty treatment. As a white woman, you weren’t supposed to do your own housework. Or, at the very least, you weren’t supposed to be seen to be doing your own cleaning. I just think this is the most brilliant ad ever. How do we get these women to buy our cleaning product? What if we constructed it as a beauty treatment?
Rail: It is very seductive, though.
Thomas: Yeah, at the same time it is. During the 1930s they started to catch their stride and they became much more clever with it. It makes great moments like this. Here is an ad for sweaters from 1959 (“Indoors Women Are Useful—Even Pleasant” [1959/2015]).
Rail: The woman is literally hanging on for her life, whilst the two men casually watch from the top of the cliff.
Thomas: This, to me, is like, if you want freedom, this is how we’re going to give it to you. You know, this is at the same time that people of African descent are being killed for looking at a white woman in the wrong way. And we find an image here of white men essentially brutalizing a woman.
Rail: Was there any particular incentive to make this series right now?
Thomas: Well, we’re at the beginning of an American electoral cycle and all the big news is about Hillary Clinton. We might be electing our first female president. Considering that women in this country didn’t have the right to vote a hundred years ago, I thought it was interesting to consider what happened in advertisements as a way to track societal notions of a specific gender—how it belongs and what its role should be in our society. I wanted to take advertisements and go through the century, using one ad for every year to create an actual timeline.
Rail: What criteria did you use for the final selection?
Thomas: I don’t know if there was a full logic. I tried not to use ads that were high fashion ads because those tend to be—they need to be kind of provocative. I wanted to find ads that spoke to the general spirit of the times, or things that were happening historically.
Rail: Where do the adverts originate from, in particular the older ones?
Thomas: I found them mostly in books and in magazines, and through archives.
Rail: I enjoyed seeing the transformation of the medium. The adverts start out as what look like watercolors—they are very obviously paintings and drawings—and then we see the transition to photography.
Thomas: Magazine advertising was really just beginning at the start of the 20th century. Now it’s coming to be a century old and possibly on its way out.
Rail: As the images are organized using this chronological device, one of the first things that you’re thinking is, does the story change? Is the advert from 2015 essentially advocating the same message as the advert from 1915? Was it an intention of yours to make viewers ask this type of question?
Thomas: My intentions are to reveal what I found. These are all, for the most part, mainstream ads. They’re mostly mainstream messages that are aimed at women, to kids, to guys. And if these are the people who are considered to be the most valuable in our cultures—as far as the standard of beauty and virtue goes, often based around these kinds of notions of white female integrity—well, this is how they’re treated. So how does that relate to the rest of us? I think it’s fascinating to consider. As the white female body works and fights for its own sense of agency and independence, there’s a whole lot of work that seems to be done to prohibit and—
Rail: To undo all of that progress.
Thomas: Yes. I’m really eager to hear what people have to say about it. This is just my own opinion. Some people have liked the images in my work for different reasons and that’s also an issue. When you see images that, say, to me, feel very sexist—having my name on them, some people will think that I made them. I’m like, no, we made them. I didn’t make them. We, as a society, made them.
Rail: I had the opportunity to view the original adverts alongside your re-worked versions. Did you ever consider showing the originals in the exhibition?
Thomas: I did consider this, but I want people to really think about the images we are producing. The originals are a distraction from what is really for sale.
Rail: Do you ever think about the ethical implications of your work? Do you feel any sort of responsibility, in that sense?
Thomas: I think there are all kinds of ethical implications. I mean, who owns the images? I don’t know. Clearly they aren’t, technically, mine. But I really don’t know who owns these images. What gives someone the right to own an image that’s made for public consumption? It’s really delicate, so I think the whole project is rife with ethical questions. Does re-showing or re-presenting these adverts reiterate meanings? Is there another way to talk about this stuff without presenting them in this way?
Rail: I wonder, then, how it felt to show your work in Bench Marks, a public art project you carried out last year. Your photographs were inserted into the fabrication of benches situated at bus stops, on the street, in a neighborhood of Chicago. When your appropriated adverts were positioned onto a public bench, they became used almost as an advert in their own right. Do you agree with that?
Thomas: Yeah, there was no direction with them. I think it’s important when you make work that is about media and popular culture to put it outside. Whenever you have an opportunity to put it out into the public, it really speaks differently than when it is shown in a gallery. It’s harder to get feedback. People vandalize it and you learn different things, but I realize, in that situation, you just don’t know who’s seeing it and you don’t know how they’re interpreting it. I don’t have any control. Also, I think it’s important in our culture to have images out there that aren’t a call to action. They’re not commerce-related images. They are in the same vein, but they are not saying, go and buy this product, or do this, or do that. I love that kind of usage of public space.
Rail: How about the way in which you are represented as an artist in the public sphere? Is that something you feel you have control of? You were recently included in two group exhibitions: Speaking of People: Ebony, Jet and Contemporary Art at The Studio Museum, and the travelling show 30 Americans organized by the Rubell Collection. Did you consider how your identity would be viewed within these curatorial premises, for example?
Thomas: Well I think 30 Americans is called that instead of 30 African Americans because they were trying to posit it as a show that’s about America, even though 99% of the artists in that show are African American. You could argue, obviously, when you learn that the exhibition is mostly of African American artists, many of whom are dealing with themes about American history, that it is related to that subject. You might consider that as the exhibition’s theme. But it’s a little bit of a sleight of hand. I think that’s what happens in that kind of case.
Rail: You don’t really have a say in how you’re defined, then.
Thomas: You never do. Once you make work, and put it out there, you have very little say. I could say all I want, but people can do whatever they want with the work, if they have access to it and I don’t. I think it’s important to be seen in a multitude of contexts. Some people have issues with that, but I guess I grew up in a particular setting. My mother is a curator, she worked at the African American Museum Project and Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. So, I don’t know. If I were only presented in one way or another, I probably would have a bigger issue. But, having had my work presented in various contexts, I think I’m just happy that people want to show and see the work.
Allie Biswas is a writer and editor. She is based in London and New York.