En Foco/In Focus: Hank Willis ThomasPosted on Apr 23 2013

By Jessica Juliao

This winter CIIS hosted the West Coast premier of En Foco/In Focus: Selections from the Permanent Collection of En Foco, a New York-based non-profit dedicated to cultural diversity in photography. The below interview with New York-based artist, Hank Willis Thomas, is most recent in a series conducted by CIIS students and emerging photographers, Jessica Juliao and Colleen McGruder, with some of the artists who were part of that exhibition.

Jessica Juliao: We are awash in advertising; it’s everywhere we look. In your Unbranded series you remove the text and the viewer is left only with the visual image absent the text-based sales pitch. At what point did you realize what was lurking behind the advertisement and begin exploring the fine line between selling a product and exploiting African Americans?

Hank Willis Thomas: It all became clear for me at the death of my cousin, Songha Thomas Willis, who was murdered in 2000 in an attempted robbery. His killer robbed his friends for gold and platinum chains. The only thing they took from my cousin was his life. It reminded me of our youth, when people were getting robbed for Air Jordans, Triple Fat Goose coats and even Jansport backpacks in New York and other major cities. That is when it became real in an embodied sense, that young men of color were taking lives and throwing their lives away through the misrecognition of themselves in commodity culture.

JJ: I am curious how African American communities have responded to your work? I think there are two parts to my question: the first is about how ideas of what it means to be African American are sold and perpetuated within that community. These advertisements are not only for an African American audience, but I believe many were printed in media marketed to African Americans. The second relates to the participation of African Americans in such advertisements?

HWT: It depends on what work you mean? Question Bridge: Black males? The Truth Booth? Public art projects? Or some of the work you see on There have been a variety of responses to the work, particularly when the audience doesn’t know I am African American. That assertion changes when people find out that I am African American and that the work is extremely personal, (some may say biographical) to me. Most audiences respond favorably, but not always. I appreciate all perspectives. If the work wasn’t unsettling on some level, it probably wouldn’t be worth making in the first place. Any response is valid to me as the work is meant to instigate dialogue about issues that are commonly seen but less commonly spoken. Here is an interesting example:


JJ: Your Smokin’ Joe image, with or without the text is one that is an attention grabber for the simple fact that a man is being portrayed as a woman, more specifically, Aunt Jemima. Can you discuss the intersections of gender and ethnic stereotypes that are being reinforced through this image?

HWT: Interesting Interpretation. Have you seen it with text? If so, you would probably have recognized it as an ad for Blue Bonnet Margerine. You just inspired me to find the TV ad for it. YouTube didn't exist when I started this project and Google wasn't what it is either. (That was just an unconscious commercial for that corporation.) What I find most interesting is what lies beneath the surface of an ad. Once the text is removed, we bring our own prejudice to it. I also think the way works are titled can be misleading. What I found in doing this project, is that most ads are not about the product as much as what subconscious or emotional connections can be made to a product through a combination of photography, ad copy, and the presumed media or cultural literacy of the intended audience.

JJ: Can you speak about the relationship between Branded and Unbranded. Are there elements that make each series its own rather than an extension of each other?

HWT: Unbranded is an evolution from B®anded. In B®anded I was creating images that looked like ads to encourage critical discourse about commodification of black bodies in corporate advertising branding methods. In contrast, with Unbranded I didn’t create any of the images. In fact, I was actually erasing the logos and branding information to reveal the image that the ad was grounded on. In this undressing of the commercial image, a lot more is revealed about intentions and prejudices of the creators. In this case, truth is better than fiction. Ads are a reflection of a society's hopes and dreams. You can learn more from a single ad than you could by reading an entire book about a time or a culture. What’s more, no single person is responsible for creating them. Entire teams collaborate to create them after focus groups and research. In a sense, it is huge collaboration.

JJ: Are there brands that appear in both series? What weaves these brands together in their role in American cultural and consumer life?

HWT: Branding is integral to the practice of consuming, and the public perception of American culture. In our culture, we often build our sense of self around the brands we own or desire to own. In actuality, it could be said that these brands own us, and this is the correlation I am trying to draw between the body as commodity during slavery and commodity culture today.

Jessica Juliao is a CIIS student and an emerging photographer.



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