Unbranded: An interview with Hank Willis Thomas

NYAB talks to the artist about his work, the new book and sister show, “Pitch Blackness,” at Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC, as well as his thoughts on Barack Obama and what a “post-black” America might really mean.

poster for Hank Willis Thomas

Hank Willis Thomas "Pitch Blackness"

at Jack Shainman Gallery
in the Chelsea 20th area
This event has ended - (2009-02-12 - 2009-03-14)

poster for

"Connections" Exhibition

at Jenkins Johnson Projects
in the DUMBO, other Brooklyn area
This event has ended - (2009-02-05 - 2009-03-28)

In Interviews by Teri Duerr 2009-03-05 print

Employing visual language and materials commonly used in mass media, artist Hank Willis Thomas has evolved from doing photographic work to presenting works ranging from large-scale sculpture comprised of polished and painted aluminum, neon, Plexiglass, and granite to hand painted, stenciled works on canvas, wood carvings, and manipulated advertising images. Together, his work, traces black history through visual culture in an attempt to dissect, reinterpret, and re-imagine iconic moments from the “black past” and to investigate the complexity of race in America in the 21st century. Thomas appropriates imagery and language from a variety of sources and released his first monograph, “Pitch Blackness,” through Aperture just last fall after winning the first Aperture West Book Prize. Recently he took the time to talk to NYAB about his work, the new book and sister show “Pitch Blackness” at Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC, as well as to share his thoughts on Barack Obama and what a “post-black” America might really mean.

Your new monograph, “Pitch Blackness,” essentially begins with what looks like pictures taken from a family photo album – your family, and your cousin Songha Willis, who was fatally shot during a mugging in Philadelphia in February of 2000, and who is the subject of much of your earlier work, “Winter in America” and “Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake.” Can you tell me a little bit more about why you decided to begin here?

It’s really because my work comes out of my family’s history and personal experience. Almost all of my work of maturity came after my cousin was murdered and after years of trying to find out creative ways to talk about issues that were related to that for myself. Since my cousin was killed, there have probably been 100,000 people killed in the United States in relatively similar ways. His story isn’t that unique or that special and he’s not famous, so who cares? So by starting the book off with this photo album, which is this experience that everyone can relate to – growing up and looking at images of family members, you mature and grow together, and then at some point that person is gone. That was a way or a device to get the viewer into this very personal side of me and not just to look at the work as this commentary on culture without any personal thing behind it. Trying to relate and to deal with the mourning process, from there the book goes into the “Winter in America” series of photographs that I did with Kambui Olijimi where I used the G.I. Joe action figures that I grew up with to tell the story [of Songha’s murder].

''Winter in America,'' Looking Through the Fence, 2005. Hank Willis Thomas, from the book ''Pitch Blackness'' (Aperture, 2008)

Are those actually your own toys from childhood?

Those are actually the ones I played with 25 years ago. I went to my old friend’s house and actually got his mother to show me where his G.I. Joes were and took all the toys home.

I was in a supermarket and I saw Roadblock, who was the second black G.I. Joe. He had a machine gun, a machete and lasers, and it said on the box, “For children ages 5 and up,” which is pretty nuts! I could barely even read when I was five years old. When you are giving children all these scenarios based around violence at that age, they know what killing is, but they don’t know what the alphabet is entirely. That really says a lot about how we raise a culture of violence and breed it in boys specifically.

In “Winter in America” we used those goofy little toys and made a stop-motion animation film to tell this really sad story in this generic, kind of quirky way with action figures. It was a way to deal with something that has come up for me a lot in my work, which is: How do you talk about something that is already happening or that everyone already knows about already? How many times have we heard stories about another young black man getting shot? All the assumptions we make around that are some of the things I wanted to contest with the work. A way of doing that was to use a less obvious medium, which is this harmless stop-motion animation and these goofy, cute toys. So from there that’s how in [“Pitch Blackness”] you understand my cousin’s been killed. And then there’s a photograph of him in the morgue.

''Bearing Witness: Murder’s Wake,'' Portraits, 2000-2008. Hank Willis Thomas, from the book ''Pitch Blackness'' (Aperture, 2008)

How did you get that photo? Do they take those at the hospital?

Yeah, you know how in the movies you come in and they kind of pull your loved one out of a drawer? They don’t do that anymore. You walk into a room and there’s a screen with their face on it and they give you a printout of it. So that was the printout they gave to my aunt. It took me a long time to actually look at, and deal with that image. [Pause] One of the things that really stung for me was that he, his final document, was just a number. Not his name, not who he was to anyone else, just this number. 00602.

I wanted to show that. So, [in]“Bearing Witness: Murders Wake” I try to photograph as many people as I could who were affected by my cousin’s life or death, in a format that kind of referenced that photograph. It was a way to try and take this kind of incomplete portrait of him and his life through the people he knew and loved, or that knew and loved him, or who were affected by his experience.

From there it segues into this “Priceless” MasterCard image from the “B®anded” series, which was a photograph I took at my cousin’s funeral and that I co-opted four years later to make a riff off of for my MasterCard campaign. That draws the connection, because the trouble with this book, was that I had this kind of work here, and this kind of work there, and it all seemed roughly around the same thing, but it didn’t seem to go together.

''B®anded,'' Priceless #1, 2004 (With thanks to Albert Ignacio). Hank Willis Thomas, from the book ''Pitch Blackness'' (Aperture, 2008)

I was actually going to ask you about Priceless #1, with the tagline “Picking the perfect casket for your son: Priceless,” as a sort of bridge between your very personal work in “Winter” and “Bearing Witness”to later work like “B®anded” and “Unbranded,” where your ideas spread out into a broader commentary about race, politics, and the commodification of urban culture. Earlier you said that your cousin’s death somehow brought everything together for you as an artist, about the issues you were trying to deal with before, and that all of a sudden you had this output. What was it about losing your cousin that changed you as an artist?

He was my best friend. We were even living together when he was killed. I spent my whole life preparing to be his little buddy. There was Songha and I was the guy behind him that maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t. That was a very comforting place to be most of my life. I felt exposed or kind of revealed without him there. It was this revelation of, “Oh, who am I?”

I often say the book is titled “Pitch Blackness” for three reasons, and 1) pitch blackness because that was the feeling of loss I had when he was killed. [I was] trying to find out who I was in that space.

How old were you?

I was 23, about to turn 24. And he was 27.

''Pitch Blackness Off Whiteness''. Neon sign. Hank Willis Thomas, © Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

And the other two meanings of “Pitch Blackness?”

Pitch blackness because advertising is a theme that runs throughout a lot of my work. Blackness is pitched as a way to cash in on street cool or urban icon – this idea of cool, hip blackness. Lastly, pitch blackness as in, “pitch blackness, off whiteness, coffee is the color of my skin,” which is to say although I will always be black, maybe at some point, in some part of my evolution, I have to get rid of this idea of blackness to really get to my humanity. We have this definition, especially in America, this conversation of White vs. Black.

Then what would you be called? When you put your hand next to mine, you could be white, and me probably black, but your skin’s not white and my skin’s not black. There are all these connotations in our language that kind of imply whiteness is good, blackness is bad, but there are black people who are your complexion, and there’s all these kinds of things about blackness that don’t describe a single black person, since there are no black people. And there’s nothing to describe a white person… You’re Asian, even though your complexion would reference a whiteness. That’s what I’ve been trying to understand. Why we allow ourselves to categorize people, and ourselves, in these ways that don’t truly describe us and that actually have a hierarchal position?

So when I say “pitch blackness, off whiteness, coffee is the color of my skin” – if we tried to actually look at all these lattes and coffees and mixtures perhaps that’s slightly more accurate in describing my skin tone than black, or your skin tone than white. You’re more like froth.

And not yellow, which is the usual “color” for East Asians.

But you’re not yellow! That’s the whole point. Then there’s that whole area, South Pacific, people are called brown, and Latino people are brown. You’re more like tan. I’m brown. But there is that—

Did you say I was frothy?

Yeah [laughs], but there’s no hierarchy in that.

How does your family feel about your work, especially your more personal work?

My cousin is making a film that will be distributed by Sundance that is not about my cousin’s murder, but it also came out of that experience. It’s about a family trying to deal with mourning. His mother, my aunt, works at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and so our family is very much in arts. Since my mother’s generation that’s part of our life. To not make work about it would never make sense. We all wish that we didn’t have it, that the work didn’t exist, but that would mean that Songha was with us making work as well.

A friend of mine said to me, “I love your work, but I always feel kind of bummed when I see it.” That was kind of this inspiration for me to try to make work that I thought was good, but also somewhat more open-ended or positive and uplifting. That’s beginning to reveal itself in [the newer] work and the complexity of that is kind of revealed in the “Unbranded” series, where I stopped using images that I was creating and started using real ads— because truth became better than fiction. [“Unbranded’] has both a sinister side and a sweet side…

''Unbranded,'' Smokin’ Joe Ain’t Jemama, 1978/2006. Hank Willis Thomas, from the book ''Pitch Blackness'' (Aperture, 2008)

…and a funny side. I find a lot of the work in “Unbranded” to be very darkly humorous.

Yeah, and the funny side. It can be inherently that much more complex when it’s advertising, which is something everyone in society is responsible for and almost everyone in this society can decode. It becomes more potent than any image that I can create on my own, especially as a collection of 82 images [from 1968-2008 that make up “Unbranded”].

There’s certainly a high level of accessibility to it. All these ideas about pitch black, off white, transcending color and the broader language of pop culture make me think about this term, “Post-Black,” I heard used to describe a movement of artists, including you. Can you explain what that is and how you feel about that label?

There’s this article by Trey Ellis called “The New Black Aesthetic,” which is 25 years old and that I never read so I don’t know what that means [laughs]. But there was a show curated at The Studio Museum in Harlem by Thelma Golden called “Freestyle” in 2001. In the catalog she termed these artists post-black artists, because they were making work that wasn’t necessarily dependent on their blackness. [It was] basically to separate the difference between the multicultural generation of artists, which is this generation of artists that succeeded the black rights movement and which is really about identity, and identity politics, and things related to that. The people in “Freestyle,” most of them, were just making art and exploring things. There might be some kind of inference of their African American experience in there, but it wasn’t what their work was based around. I was in the second series of that show called “Frequency,” and I’m not sure if I would be deemed post-black so much because I probably still relate much more in the work I make to the multicultural generation, but because I am the age of the post-black artists, that may be why I’m included.

This does relate to the work in my most recent show though. This idea of “pitching blackness” is kind of about an after blackness, when you have a black president, and a black first lady, and black people being disproportionately represented in prison, and a black attorney general, and Oprah, and 50 Cent, and Jay-Z, and Michael Jackson…. The idea of “blackness” that existed in 1976 when I was born is much more diluted and convoluted [now]. You can’t just say “black” and understand just a segregated portion of society. We have black people across the strata.

I think this notion of post-blackness came up in this last election where Barack Obama was first not black enough when he was running against Clinton; then Jeremiah Wright made him too black; and then by the end of the campaign, there was this conversation about post-black. All the while, Obama was just saying, “I’m Barack Obama.” We tried to label him these different things and nothing fit. That speaks to the post-black conundrum.

''B®anded,'' Branded Head, 2003. Hank Willis Thomas, from the book ''Pitch Blackness'' (Aperture, 2008)Your work deals with lots of ideas like this, but as you said earlier, some of the race politics you explore are reminiscent of multicultural artists like Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson—but from a distinctly male perspective. What sort of themes unique to African American male experience are you speaking to?

Well, I like to be an expert, and the only thing I can be an expert on is the black male experience, from my experience. That’s why it was a theme in my work for so long. You really couldn’t top me on that one. I can say that at the very beginning I was definitely very graphically influenced by Kara Walkers cutouts. I think my mother actually wrote Lorna Simpson’s first monograph. [My mother’s] known and has been writing about that whole generation, Carrie Mae Williams… that’s my mother’s generation of artists.

Your mother being the artist, photographer, historian Deborah Willis.

I was always definitely really influenced by her work with these other artists—primarily the women. The people she worked with were mostly women and that made me hyper-aware of how little I know about talking about womanhood—in a mature way at least. I basically tried to focus on doing what my mother did, but trying to focus on the male experience. Really trying to complete or be in conversation with her work.

How was it growing up around all the stuff your mom was doing? The art, the photography, the people…

It was pretty much like growing up anywhere because you don’t realize it. I would be playing with my G.I. Joes and my toys with my other friends at these art openings and running around. I could have cared less! I definitely didn’t really think about being an artist. I never learned to paint or draw, and I thought that was what an artist was.

As I’ve become older, it’s become better and better to feel like I’ve been a part of…a continuum from my childhood to now, and the kinds of things I have been doing.

I noticed that you were actually doing some speaking engagements with your mom while you’re promoting your new book and she’s promoting her new book, “Obama: The Historic Campaign in Photographs.” How has that been?

I think we’ve done three things together. It’s been fun. It’s cool to be able to tell your life story with someone. My mother and I are actually collaborating on a show coming up at one of the university galleries at Columbia. It’s a show called “Progeny,” of work that either she made that my work related to, or work that we made together.

How did you decide what you were going to do together?

We just looked at the themes of our work that mostly related to family and some that relate to the female body. It just kind of gelled.

Did you discover anything new about one another?

[Laughs] We found out we were doing the same thing! Like the project that I’m doing, that isn’t related in any way to what you’ve seen or anyone else has seen, about asking people their birth stories. Simultaneously, unbeknownst to me, my mother was asking people stories of things that their mother or father told them about life. It was just like, “How did we not know that I’m collecting birth stories, and you’re collecting stories about passing family knowledge down?”

What are you doing with all of these stories?

We use some of the lips from the [portraits of the] “Bearing Witness” series and made these graphic images – text and pictures – and there’s video. I’m doing this video of mothers and fathers telling the story of their child’s birth, and then the person telling the story of their own birth, and they are played side by side.

That’s interesting, but how does that work? Nobody remembers their own birth.

Exactly! That’s what I think is so interesting about your birth. It’s the single most important event of your life, next to your death, and you have no clue what happened. The stories that your parents tell you, or don’t tell you, about your birth really in some part becomes your first understanding of who you are or how you were.

So what’s the story of your birth?

From my mother’s side or my father’s side? [Laughs] When I came out I was bow-legged, pigeon-toed… I was a breach baby, which meant they had to turn me around inside of her and then I was bow-legged and pigeon-toed…

So you gave her a hard time.

…and I had a lazy eye. I was like, “You guys are happy to have me?” It was 36 hours of labor. My mother’s story is that she went to see “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and something in that movie triggered her labor. Sounds like a big pain in the ass.

''Absolut No Return,'' laser-jet print.  Hank Willis Thomas, © Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

This collaboration with your mother actually sounds much more like a return to the personal, in contrast to the new gallery work for “Pitch Blackness.” The work at Jack Shainman looks like yet another leap in a new direction – lots of conceptual word play, marble slabs, neon signage, holograms, and references to other artists’ work. You said growing up you never learned to paint or draw, but apparently you do everything else.

No. I don’t do any of it. That was the major challenge of the show. What I’ve been limited by, until I started the “Unbranded” project, was that all I could do was take pictures. I was decent at taking pictures, but it never said enough. On “Unbranded” I did all this retouching, and then it got to crunch time and I had to hire a retoucher. I encountered this conundrum where, for the first time, I was making this whole series of work that I didn’t make. That was really a scar on my photographer’s ego to be using other people’s photographs to make my art; but at the same time, I couldn’t make art – I couldn’t take a picture – that said what that ad for Coca-Cola in 1979 did. I had to use those objects. The art in it was to recognize that by removing the branding from the image, that you could recognize what was really being sold. That’s why I say truth is better than fiction, because I didn’t own it.

Moving into [the “Pitch Blackness”] show, I often say that I’m trying to make work that talks about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about. In making the work for this show I positioned myself almost like an art director, where I worked with three or four different people, brainstorming themes about how the work should come out. I went to a sign company to do the Africa/America piece, another for the Jordan and Johnny Walker, and then a neon sign company for the neon signs. I hired a sign maker friend to make the paintings, then I appropriated ads, and even the picture of the The Door of No Return I went to a stock agency and paid a stock photographer for that image. So although the show isn’t as much overtly about advertising, it’s still using the method that work we see in the mainstream goes through.

It’s fun going to the sign shop and saying, “Hey, wanna help me make my art?”… Most of the work that those kinds of companies do is always in the interest of corporate commerce, but to make it for the sake of art, that may or may not sell, but is something that is beautiful, and potent, and beyond the commerce value, was the exciting part – these blue-collar people having conversations about things like this wood piece here [points to a wood engraving of The Curious in Ecstasy a reproduction of a lewd 19th-century French cartoon in which Botticelli’s Venus stands in for a Hottentot Venus caricature of Sara Baartman, the Khoikhoi woman put on exhibition in Europe in 1810] of and the tones of the Venus de Milo and objectification and things like that.

Perhaps I feel a little more removed from the making process than I was before, but… I realized that I’m trying to make work that is contemporary and relevant to critiquing advertising and I’m one dude. Your average campaign has 20, if not 50, professionals. I can’t do that on my own… This is more the first step in the “Pitch Blackness” campaign, the theme of the show. It allows me to work in that way, and it is a lot more fun. Being able to collaborate… I feel like your commentary is always stronger when you can say we rather than just I. When we work this way, it says something because it doesn’t just have my imprint. It might have the guy from the sign shop’s imprint who says, “It’s not shiny enough,” or the input from my friend who is a graphic designer saying, “Do this.” That tug of war is what comes out of it. Most of it is spawned from me, but that’s what I like about the direction the work is going in. It’s in the seductive format of these signs, and commerce, and industry, but we’re talking about things that commerce and industry never really talk about. Who knows where it will take me?

19th-century French cartoon ''La Venus hottentote''

''The Curious in Ecstasy,'' laser engraved mahogany. Hank Willis Thomas, © Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

You are pretty critical about commodification and commerce, but you’re now getting to a point where the making of your art is buying in more and more to the trading of goods and services, into the very system you’re critiquing. Whether it’s that, or even just acknowledging the level of status you have achieved as an artist and the very commerce of art itself, how do you feel about that?

If I can actually have a home, which I haven’t had yet, and pay off all my loans, and have my family or dear friends not be flat broke, then I’ll have what I call “successful” status.

That being said, one day I didn’t have health care. I was in San Francisco, I had asthma, and I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t afford to pay for medicine. I was like, “Being broke sucks!” We romanticize this idea of the starving artist. Who wants to be a starving artist? But it sounds so good. We believe there is this nobility to being poor. I think there is nobility to being poor, but in America there is no nobility to being poor.

Why do you say specifically in America?

Because if you’re poor in America, it’s because someone got over on you… When I say that there is no nobility in being poor, somebody who basically tricks you into buying a car you don’t need, gets paid $15 million a year even though they are running their company into the ground, and you’re raising your kids on your own, and you’re a school teacher, and you’re affecting 40 people’s lives everyday in a positive way… That [teacher] is making as much in a whole year as that other person is making in one day. That really speaks to the fact that we don’t honor the poor. We don’t respect the poor in our country.

With how that relates to me and my work, I had this conversation about if I want to critique the system, do I critique it from a place with virtually no voice, basically me on the street making graffiti, putting up signs? That’s the only way in America to be outside the system and still critique it. You can be the most hardcore anarchist, but that probably means that no one will ever know who you are, or you’ll probably be in jail. Or even if you are a graffiti artist, if you’re really good, at some point Sprite is going to say—

Like Shepard Fairey and the Obama campaign.

Right! You cannot not be co-opted by the system. As long as you want to have a say in the system, that is something you have to find a way to be at peace with.

So you’re at peace with the inherent contradiction?

That’s what I am trying to talk about in my work and kind of where all that came from. I’m critiquing and the best way to critique the system is from within. If I’m a part of the system myself and I’m critiquing myself, and the system, it is a lot more potent than trying to be holier than thou. Where is the line between being a sellout and being authentic in this society? My work tries to have integrity A) because the way I live my life, but also because the concepts the work is around can be self-critical… How I do that? It’s the process you’re seeing me go through, starting with the thing I am an expert on and exploring, through conversations with others, things that I don’t know.

One of the funniest challenges I had was that I co-opted all these ads for the “Unbranded” series, and then I was in this show called “30 Americans” and Puma decides to co-sponsor the show. One of the ads I use from 2003 is a Puma ad. The curator said, “It’s in the show, but you can’t sue him!” and says, “I have a better idea.” They hired me and another photographer to do a Puma shoot about the show.

How did you feel about it? Did you have to stop and question if it was a good idea?

One thing that I always said was that I would know my work was successful when I got offered to do a job for a corporation. The reason I use advertising as a theme is because it is the most universal language in the world, that almost anyone who is media literate can decode. If I become so good at it, or so good at stealing it or using it for my own benefit that corporations want to use it, that means I am speaking to a really broad audience. So that’s what that was.

It’s almost how I imagine our president to be. He knows that he can’t change the system or overhaul everything that is bad with it, but if he’s in the chair, at least he probably feels that he can sway the conversation in a direction it hasn’t gone before. That’s kind of how I hope to be. I don’t necessarily want to flip the switch, but if I can help steer the conversation in a way that might be productive, that would be great for me. And if I can make a living doing that, all the better.

Teri Duerr

Teri Duerr. Teri lives in Brooklyn where she co-runs Horse+Dragon NYC, a boutique agency that puts creative talents to work on publicity, editing, design, and events/exhibitions for artists, writers and nonprofit friends. She has spent much of the last year launching publicity campaigns for films at Tribeca, Sundance, SXSW, MoMA, and for television broadcast. In addition to being a contributing editor for the highly dubious culture publication Chief Magazine, and a book reviews editor for Mystery Scene, she spent four years as director and editorial mentor for the Minneapolis teen girls’ magazine Chicas in the Mix, followed In 2000 by editor in chief posts at events & culture magazines Tokyo Scene and Kansai Scene in Japan. Her editorial and photo production work has appeared in places like Best Life, The Source, Men’s Health, Organic Style, Vogue Korea, Vogue China, and most recently Tom Tom Magazine and CODE. » See other writings

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