Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded: Block Museum - Northwestern University
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Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded

The artwork of Hank Willis Thomas
April 14-August 5, 2018
Main Gallery
[left] Hank Willis Thomas, The natives will get restless, 1976/2015, 2015 LightJet print, 61.9 x 50 inches. [right] Hank Willis Thomas, Bleach and Glow, 1975/2008, 2008 LightJet print, 61.9 x 50 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

A practicing artist for over fifteen years, Hank Willis Thomas (American, b. 1976) has consistently explored American consumer culture, particularly as it relates to African-American subjects. His projects often appropriate imagery drawn from advertising campaigns to investigate the subtle and not so subtle ways in which this influential imagery reproduces and reinforces ideas about race and race relations. Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded consists of a tightly focused selection of approximately 40 photographs from two related bodies of works—the 2005-08 series Unbranded:  Reflections in Black by Corporate America and the 2015 series Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015, which draw directly from the visual repertoire of American print advertising.  

Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America explores fifty years of print advertising targeted towards African-Americans—from 1968, a year of heightened social and political protest that saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., until 2008, the year of the election of the first African American president. Thomas digitally stripped these advertisements of all text, including product names and slogans, allowing the impact of their images to be felt more acutely. 

Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015 ends with the year in which Thomas finished working on the series, and stretches back to five years before American women gained the right to vote. Like Reflections in Black, the advertising images that are featured in A Century of White Women are stripped of text, heightening our awareness of how we read them as assertions about beauty, desire, virtue, and ideal white femininity.

Seen together, the works in these two series offer a unique opportunity to explore the ways in which Thomas interrogates images across subject matter and allows for a complex and nuanced contemplation of the interrelated construction of narratives about race, gender, and class through the vehicle of advertising. By honing in on print advertising, especially drawn from magazines, Thomas also provides an opportunity to reflect on the important role magazines played as a primary form of mass communication during the 20th century.

About the Artist

Hank Willis Thomas earned his BFA in photography and Africana studies from New York University in 1998 and MFA in photography/ MA in visual criticism from California College of Arts, San Francisco in 2004. He is a 2017 recipient of the Open Society Foundations’ Soros Equality Fellowship awarded to practitioners from a variety of fields to support work that advances racial justice.  He has been a W.E.B. DuBois Institute Resident Fellow at Harvard University, and has received awards and residencies from John Hopkins University, Headlands and Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris among others.


Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded is curated by Janet Dees, Steven and Lisa Munster Tananbaum Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, with assistance from Tamar Kharatishvili, 2017-18 Block Graduate Curatorial Fellow. Funding for this exhibition has been provided by the David C. & Sarajean Ruttenberg Arts Foundation, the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and the Illinois Arts Council Program.