Today, I visited PS1-Contemporary Arts Center and discovered the fabulous work of Hank Willis Thomas, an artist exploring the commodification of black bodies by corporate advertisers. The exhibit I saw was called “Unbranded” is a series of images taken from magazine advertisements from 1968 to the present, such as this one from 1978 of an advertisement for pancakes. The artist removes all text and logos to “reveal what is being sold,” and alters nothing else of the image.
(“Smokin Joe Ain’t Je’mama” 1978/2006)
In statement about this work, Thomas writes:
“I believe that in part, advertising’s success rests on its ability to reinforce generalizations about race, gender, and ethnicity which can be entertaining, sometimes true, and sometimes horrifying, but which at a core level are a reflection of the way a culture views itself or its aspirations. By ‘unbranding’ advertisements I can literally expose what Roland Barthes refers to as ‘what-goes-without-saying’ in ads, and hopefully encourage viewers to look harder and think deeper about the empire of signs that have become second nature to our experience of life in the modern world.”
Although Thomas’ work includes images of black men and women, he says that he is most interested in exploring the “link between the commodification of African men in the slave trade and the use of black bodies to hawk goods from credit cards to Nikes today.” Thomas’ earlier work, Branded, deals explicitly with branding, from the product logos plastered on athletes and rap stars to the markings that identified slaves. In an interview Thomas says:
“I think that the irony of the ideal of the black male body is interesting…it is fetishized and adored in advertising but in reality black men are in many ways the most feared and hated bodies of the 21st Century. The majority of this work comes out of the experience of losing my cousin Songha Thomas Willis – he was killed because he was with someone who was wearing a gold chain. It is this idea – that someone could be killed over a tiny commodity. In NYC in the 1980s, people were killed over sneakers and backpacks. Songha was someone who survived DC when it was the murder capital of the country and then came home to Philly and was killed over a commodity. I want to question what makes these commodities so precious that they are worth defining and more importantly taking another person’s life?”
The work is beautiful, thought-provoking, compelling, disturbing – like art should be, in my view. If you can get to PS1, make sure you see “Unbranded.” If not, you may want to check out Thomas’ online portfolio or his monograph, Pitch Blackness.
Very good post and very good work by Thomas. It really is very interesting the way black bodies continue to be commodified and objectified. Nauseating, too.
The online portfolio is amazing. Thanks so much for introducing me to Hank Willis Thomas. In a racist society, advertising has done an amazing job of showing what is really for sale.
Not only are Black bodies used as commodities, they are used to reinforce the unchecked consumerism that runs rampant within the Black community. One cannot deny the fact that as Black faces are predominately used to sell tobacco products, alcohol, shoes, and other nonsense items, the consumption of these products by African Americans have steadily increased.
@ zinobia – Without arguing the accuracy of your point in the 2nd paragraph, let’s do make sure to acknowledge that rampant consumerism knows no racial boundaries.
@No1. Very true! The power of advertising has contributed to the rampant consumerism that dominates our society as a whole. No one is exempt. Even little children are used as tools to separate parents from their money. However, it is hard to ignore the excessive and aggressive advertising used in predominately Black communities which encourages consumerism and discourages any type of financial independence. When I consider the economic situation a majority of Blacks are in, and the systemic causes that contribute to their consumerism, I can only infer that they fall prey, more than others, to the traps of deceptive advertising.
I inferred that you inferred that. You don’t need to take my word for it; you don’t know me. But let me save you some time and assure you that our spending and saving habits are no worse than anyone else’s. Our economic situations is due to decades of discrimination and stolen moneys. It has nothing to do with our consumerism.
I know there are people who will carry on about black people’s spending habits; ie, “All that money for a pair of sneakers?” The thing is, though, that we’re not the only ones buying “those sneakers,” right? So you have to look at spending habits of comparable income/socioecon groups, and our spending habits are no more or worse than others.
We are disproportionately poor, but like I said, that’s because of historical income and employment discrimination, housing and lending exploitation, and the fact that only 2% of black WWII vets received the GI benefits they were entitled to. So, that’s one way in which we differ economically from others.
The other way is that because of our disproportionate poverty and having been prohibited from accumulating wealth, high income blacks are leaned upon by lesser off family members.
But our spending and saving habits are no worse than anyone else’s.