Yesterday I went to the High Musuem in Atlanta and saw Hank Willis Thomas’ ‘Unbranded’ series. You can take a look at it on his website.
It was a rather strange experience. I just walked through an expedition of civil rights protest photographs and reconnected with the hatred and fear of the time. You can’t watch a picture of a vile looking older white woman spewing hate at a 15 year old black girl who wants to go to school and not feel a sense of revulsion, grief and sadness. It was a culture war and the only thing that made it bearable was knowing the good guys won in the end.
But then I walk into a huge gallery and see Thomas’ work. For this series, he took advertising images from the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and took away any of the brand names or text. We’re just left with these odd images of what corporate America thinks of black people, and what black people themselves were bombarded with. It’s a strange feedback cycle of uninformed expectations doubling back around to becoming an ideal. It made me laugh, and it made me think about how we perceive people. I look at a beautiful image of a black woman and I ask myself if the image is my culture projecting my values onto someone else’s values, or if is just a really beautiful woman. Then I realize that through the power of advertising, it becomes our values whether we like it or not.
I have to say there was a personally jarring moment when I saw Lil Kim with long blonde hair. I semi-recognized it from an album cover, but I couldn’t shake the impression that it was a black sex symbol taking an attribute from a classic white sex symbol. Considering that it was placed right next to a topless woman who could have been Grace Jones in full 80’s tribal glory, there was a contrast between what people think a true black beauty would look like, and what a black beauty should look like.
That is what I really enjoyed about these images. Stripped of context they just become pure emotional triggers. You’re supposed to feel something with the subtlety of a brick. You’re supposed to short circuit your logic and go straight to your fears and hopes. I wish I could do stories this blatant.
If this exhibiton comes to your neck of the woods go see it. If not, at least you can see some of the images on the artist’s website.