Hank Willis Thomas uses photography, video, the web, and installations to examine how history and culture are framed, who is doing the framing, and how these factors affect our views of society. One of the most thoughtful, provocative young American artists of our time, Thomas (born 1976) has already had an impressive decade-long career that includes a 2008 monograph; a fellowship from the Tribeca Film Institute; and exhibitions and acquisitions at prestigious American, European, and African museums and galleries.
This exhibition was inspired by the museum’s 2012 acquisition of six of the artist’s works, all of which will be on view, and is the artist’s largest museum show to date as well as his first in northeast Ohio. It was on view simultaneously at the Cleveland Museum of Art from October 20, 2013 to March 9, 2014 and at the Transformer Station from December 14, 2013 to March 8, 2014.
The museum’s photography gallery featured all 82 works in Thomas’s first major series, Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America, 1968–2008. By subtracting all the branding information from advertising images appropriated from four decades of Ebony magazine, Thomas hopes to encourage viewers “to think more deeply about how advertising reinforces generalizations surrounding race, gender, and cultural identity.” Also on view was an emotionally powerful video by Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America, which employs stop-action animation and G.I. Joe figures to act out the shooting death of Thomas’s cousin during a robbery. The artists, who played with similar toys themselves, have come to believe that they breed “a culture of violent thoughts for young boys who are invited to author violent scenarios before they can even read.”
The Transformer Station hosted a five-screen video installation, Question Bridge: Black Males. This collaborative project by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayete Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair invites viewers to witness an intimate dialogue between black men who come from a wide range of geographic, economic, generational, educational, and social backgrounds. Through questions and answers that are pointed, poignant, humorous, painful, and revealing, these men begin to redefine black male identity in America. On view in an adjoining gallery was selections from several of Thomas’s past series, including Branded and Strange Fruit, plus a selection of new works by the artist.