Hank Willis Thomas UnabridgedJuxtapoz // Monday, 22 Feb 2010
Hank Willis Thomas
Interview by Katie Zuppann
Portraits of Hank by Randy Dodson
Artwork Images courtesy Jack Shainman Gallery
If looking at a Hank Willis Thomas piece of work makes you uncomfortable, then mission accomplished. He has stripped the skin off an imperfect America by swiftly dealing a blow to viewers’ hearts and minds. Make no mistake, Hank has a point, and he will make sure you listen up.
I. Racial Construction in America
Katie Zuppann: Your work is sociological in nature and I was really struck by the poignancy of your Branded series. You have a very clear message that you are trying to convey to the viewer. Do you agree with that?
Hank Willis Thomas: It depends on what the viewer gets. You could have every intention, but I’ve found that I’ve learned as much about the work from other people’s interpretation of it as I, that’s kind of the genius of being an artist. What’s great about doing something that uses the medium of advertising is that so many people have access to being able to decode it. We are media literate. That’s what I like most about the work. I can put something out there with some sort of intention. My intention is always trying to make it kind of double sided so it doesn’t have one concise meaning. I try to tread that line of saying something that we already know and that is very simple but also adding a bit more to suggest something beyond the obvious.
Do you think that kind of overarching goal encompasses all of the different mediums you work in? Is that a goal in every series that you have done?
I was always interested in frames within frames. Interested in, especially in photography, what’s going on just outside the frame of the camera to affect our perception of it. We look at it as a document, but it’s such a manipulated medium from the beginning to the end.
I remember when I first started seeing how images are retouched and how that’s just part of the industry. These celebrities and models; we’re kind of trained to adore and find them so beautiful. For an ad, by the time it goes from conception to the end, you can probably argue that 50 people’s hands have touched it. And I always say that if you have 20 or 50 professionals whose job it is to make you look good, you’re probably going to look pretty good.
I was really interested in that really obvious manipulation that we sort of succumb to everyday, like when we watch television or read magazines.
Have you always been sensitive to that?
I think that has definitely been the theme. I have always loved television and advertising so I have always been interested in how it works.
So you like it?
Yeah, I mean, it’s the most seductive medium in the world isn’t it? This is a little bit of a tangent, but I was thinking about this recently: when you watch television, you’re actually not doing anything. Your brain cuts off; it’s not an active process at all. You’re not critiquing, you’re just absorbing, absorbing, absorbing. Maybe when you turn it off you can start thinking critically about things but you’re not at all while your watching. But it’s so seductive.
Do you find yourself falling into that trap as well?
Oh yeah. That’s why I don’t watch television. If you put me in front of a television, I’m just like a dear in the headlights. What I’m interested in with my work is trying to make work that can appeal to a broad audience. And one of the things that media culture - television, magazines, and increasingly more the Internet - is all about is how to appeal to a really broad audience. So you could say in a sense that it’s training, but it’s really just taking it in, in subtle ways, that kind of influences my work.
Definitely the ultimate manipulation I think, because it’s so subtle.
It’s like, why do we care about Jon and Kate Gosselin? Or whoever. How do these people capture our attention? They are definitely not special. They got eight kids but you know, forty years ago that wasn’t extraordinary. The media has become masters of making very unimportant things important.
So what do you think is important?
I think that all that I can add to it is trying to remind people to think beyond what goes without saying. We’re all so prejudiced and I feel like it’s important to think of ourselves and think of others beyond the prejudice.
That’s what was amazing about Barack Obama. He was able to see beyond his own prejudice, which I think is one of the things that has limited a lot of other African Americans. Beyond racism and all of that other stuff, we also self-select.
So with the Branded series I was really struggling, because my cousin was murdered, and there was no logic behind his murder. This guy Lawrence says to Alberto (the two guys there that night) “I want to go get a chain” and that’s how it started. My cousin wasn’t even wearing a chain. They robbed these other dudes that my cousin had just happened to be with at the club.
He was visiting my grandmother and ran into his friends from high school. They robbed the other guys. Literally they took nothing from my cousin but his life. The other guys that they were with ran when my cousin was lying face down in the snow and the guys shot him in the back of the head.
I was really struggling with that. When we found out, the first thing that my roommate Seith Mann said was ‘The toughest part about this is that we don’t have to wonder if the killers were black.’
And all we knew at the time was that he was killed in Philadelphia, which is a predominantly African American town, and that he was killed over a chain. I was really kind of haunted. They got caught two months later because they went to the same club and robbed another guy for his chain but this time, rather than killing him, they were just shooting into the parking lot and the police happened to be there. I think they were between the ages of 16 and 19. There were four African American kids and one Puerto Rican kid.
And I was just like, what is it? I’ve gone to all-black schools, I’ve gone to all-white schools and one of these kinds of things I’ve always dealt with. Like in Syracuse a lot of my white male friends especially would be afraid or kind of intimidated to going to areas where there are all black people. And the truth of the matter is that, looking at the statistics, in the past 40 years we have posed a bigger risk to each other by far than anyone. That’s the statistics, the Bureau of Justice says in the year 2005, blacks were six times more likely to be murdered than whites and 94% were killed by blacks.
And I was trying to figure that out. It got down to something in the construction of black male identity. And it is a construction. Black male identity as we know it started with slavery in the United States. Not in Africa. I’m interested in the way that black men are the most feared and revered bodies in the world in this weird way. I was trying to figure out why that was and what that was about, and the relationship to slavery and commodity, which is commerce, culture, cotton, and that body type. So that’s kind of what started the Branded series and what it is about.
And that spurred you forward?
Then I did that Winter in America movie. It’s using the G.I. Joe action figures that we played with as boys to tell a story that’s very true. We had this weird kind of conundrum with kind of having fun. I went back to my best friends house and got the toys, all of the old G.I. Joes that I had given to him. And it was us playing—one of them I had known since I was six so we actually played with these toys twenty years before—but now as men. But telling a story that is serious. We tried to use this kind of goofy format. The idea was: how do you tell a story that has been told a thousand times before or everyday, in a new way?
Rather than thinking about my cousin specifically, we focused on the last 5 minutes of his life. And using this goofy, disarming format of stop motion, it immediately asked you to think of things in a different way. And it’s still about that context; it’s changing the context in order to say something that we already know.
We say that we don’t condone violence in this culture, but at least 60 percent of the movies that we watch are about absurd, choreographed violence. There’s that conundrum; you wonder how that affects people, especially little boys whose identity was kind of constructed for them before they could even know who they are themselves.
The difference between seeing a normal black kid at age seven to age seventeen is huge. You know all boys change a lot from that, but you can especially that way that you see that in African Americans.
One of my friends’ favorite singer was Debbie Gibson who was like the Britney Spears of the eighties. He was like a big fan. Now he’s all hip-hop and all this other stuff. It’s just interesting to see because that’s just not who you can be.
That also relates to what I think happened with Michael Jackson, who I think really had problems with black male identity especially at the time and rejected it and tried to define himself independently from that.
So that piece that was in one of my shows. There was a picture from 1984 of what they thought he would look like in the year 2000. And it’s more distinguished, like he’s got a mustache and his jerry curl is kind of more coifed. And it said on the page, Time Can Be a Villain or a Friend; like he could be this different kind of star. And to me it said so much about how our assumptions of him affected him.
I think that Michael Jackson is definitely one of the more powerful examples of how society can backfire on an individual. That constant interplay between fame; what you’re giving to the public and what the public does to you.
Yeah especially him who never, in a sense, had a private life. So then the Unbranded series. I felt like people were giving me way to much credit for the images in the Branded series. Like, ‘Wow, that was really smart.’ But a lot of the things actually came out of dialogues a lot like this. For that series I took two ads from 1968 and 2008 and removed all of the branding information, focusing on ads that were geared toward a black audience. I chose 1968 because that’s when Martin Luther King died and it was the symbolic end of the civil rights movement. It was interesting kind of coming up on the fortieth anniversary, looking at what had changed in the way that society had seen black American then and now.
Prior to the sixties, most images you saw were black people treated like servants or caricatures and so I was really interested in this maturation. Also the fact that most of the people who made these ads were white men on Madison Ave. making decisions about what black people would love or should love, and that inherently complicated the notion of blackness.
What I say is interesting about existing ads is that I can’t claim any responsibility over them per se, other than their selection and kind of undressing. We as a society kind of brought them in. No photographer can claim them solely, no art director can claim them; it’s really this thing that is of the moment. I say that we can learn as much about society by looking at a few certain ads as we can by reading an entire book about a certain time period. And so that’s what kind of inspired that project.