Hank Willis Thomas at Transformer Station and the Cleveland Museum of Art: Exploring Race, Corporate Power, and Cultural Stereotypes
CLEVELAND, Ohio — Every day in zillions of ways, major-league sports, movies, television and advertising pump out rivers of stereotypical images of African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups. It’s so pervasive and overwhelming that it’s easy to let it all wash over you and take it for granted.
This is manifestly not how artist Hank Willis Thomas regards the daily visual flow.
In a polished and wickedly on-target multipart exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Transformer Station in Ohio City, Thomas, 37, who lives and works in New York and San Francisco, captures, appropriates and overturns cliched media images of African-Americans.
The show, one of five on work by modern and contemporary African-American artists scheduled at the museum since late 2012, is apparently part of a new outreach aimed at the city’s black community, and at raising awareness about black artists in the United States. Yet the museum hasn’t framed the exhibitions as a series, which is puzzling. It’s unclear whether the flurry of shows was planned or is merely a coincidence. More about that in a moment.
What matters most about the Thomas show is that his work powerfully calls attention to the insidious ways in which corporations manipulate racial perceptions to pursue agendas that, regardless of their original intent, often reinforce stereotypes.
This message comes most across strongly in the museum’s portion of the show, which opened on Oct. 20 and which focuses a 2008 series of images entitled “Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America.” This is a body of work in which Thomas lifted from ads in popular magazines such as Time, Ebony, Playboy and Sports Illustrated that were developed specifically to address black audiences.
Using the original advertisements as a starting point, Thomas then subtracted the verbiage and logos from the source images to “unchain,” if the word can be used, their underlying racial content. What you get at the end of this process is something approximating the raw original photograph used in an ad or movie poster to help sell the product, whether a movie, a car, a motor scooter or a hair gel.
The uncanny result is that when unmoored from the specific corporate branding messages that originally accompanied these images, racial content is allowed to float free with a peculiar, open-ended intensity. The effect is strangely ambiguous and pointed at the same time.
“Now There’s a Doll,” by Hank Willis Thomas.
Cleveland Museum of Art
For example, the show includes a cringe-inducing photograph of a slice of watermelon on a plate from an ad that originally ran in Ebony in 2005-06. The Thomas work is called “How to Market Kitty Litter to Black People,” a title that sounds bizarre and perplexing in combination with an image often associated with racist views of blacks.
It raises questions and leaves you scratching your head. Why would Ebony run such an ad? What assumptions lay beneath expectations about how readers would receive the image? How did the original image relate to the advertising content? Did the language associated with the ad put a positive spin on the watermelon slice that makes it somehow appropriate?
One can’t know the answers to any of these questions because Thomas conceals the original context, while allowing the racially stereotypical underlying image to float unfettered in a way that heightens its outrageousness. This technique, repeated over and over across the course of a big show, gives the experience the flavor of an expose. The magic, however, is that Thomas doesn’t direct the experience in a didactic manner. He simply tees up the explosive images, and lets them detonate in your mind.
The installation of the show, organized by Barbara Tannenbaum, the museum’s curator of photography, also contributes to the effect. The images are framed and hung in two rows that march around the entire photography gallery, from which dividing walls have been removed. This gives the space a sense of grandeur that lends authority to Thomas’s critique of the images he’s appropriated.
The installation of the Hank Willis Thomas exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art adds to the impact of the works on view.
“Unbranded” is divided into sections that deal with images of urban tough guys and drug dealers, black families aspiring to middle-class success, black skin tones, bodily features such as lips, teeth and buttocks, black hair products and hairstyles, foods of various kinds, and diverse celebrities or leaders including the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Grace Jones and Whoopee Goldberg.
Many images in the show radiate a slick cynicism or a desire to exploit; others are simply crass. In one image, a topless black woman whose skin has been oiled (and whose breasts Thomas tastefully blurred) models a shearling lamb coat, contrasting the garment with the texture and color of her flesh. In another, the knuckles of an angry-looking black male fist morph into the treads of an automobile tire that kicks up dust in a desert landscape, in an image that equates blackness and road rage.
The show also includes the source photograph for the poster for Spike Lee’s “Jungle Fever,” in which a white woman’s hand entwines with that of a black man – a simple, beautiful image that somehow becomes more potent when disconnected from the movie’s title.
At the Transformer Station, where a separate portion of the Thomas show opened Dec. 14, the artist is displaying recent works that continue his exploration of advertising and media, while also delving into historical and vernacular images taken from black history.
A framed quilt, called “Buckeye,” uses the red and white logos of Ohio State and Stanford University NCAA teams in the “Crossroads” pattern traditionally associated with coded messages communicated by Northern abolitionists to slaves escaping the South along the Underground Railroad to places such as Cleveland.
As the label accompanying the quilt states, the work suggests that college sports could be viewed as a modern-day plantation system built on the bodies of black athletes.
In a similar vein, Thomas digitally imposes welts shaped like those of the Nike swoosh on a photograph of a muscular black man, equating enslavement and the lucrative business of product endorsement by major-league athletes.
The “Truth Booth,” part of the Hank Willis Thomas focus at the Cleveland Museum of Art, visited the museum’s atrium in November. It also returned on Monday, MLK Day.
Cleveland Museum of Art
Thomas makes an even more painful comment on black athletes in “Strange Fruit From Strange Fruit,” a digitally manipulated photograph of a black basketball player shown hanging by the arm from a basketball suspended in a hangman’s noose. It’s an explosive image that connects Jim Crow lynchings, a famous Billie Holliday song and professional sports.
Also on view at the Transformer Station is a room-size, five-screen video installation, “Question Bridge,” which presents three hours’ worth of vignettes from interviews with 150 African-American men across the country who responded to questions about race and identity. Thomas produced the video along with colleagues Bayete Ross Smith, Chris Johnson and Kamal Sinclair.
The installation, which is beautifully produced and skillfully edited, exerts an almost hypnotic power because of the frank and articulate manner in which the speakers dissect their feelings about racism in America, stereotypical views of black men, the N-word and other topics.
Video installations of long duration can leave you feeling the need to check your watch. That is absolutely not the case with “Question Bridge,” which engages a viewer with the dignity and individuality of the interviewees and the way in which the video flows from one compelling topic to another.
Another collaborative project in which Thomas is involved, “In Search of the Truth (The Truth Booth),’’ consists of a large inflatable shelter shaped like a comic strip speech bubble, which is traveling around Cleveland in a series of pop-up events. Participants are invited to enter the booth and video-record brief responses to the prompt: “the truth is …” Thomas created the work along with Ryan Alexiev and Jim Ricks. All are members of the San Francisco-based Cause Collective.
The multipart Thomas exhibition — the artist’s largest show at a museum so far in his career, according to CMA – has arrived at the institution at a time when it is apparently trying to do a better job of engaging with African-Americans in the neighborhoods surrounding University Circle and in Cleveland as a whole, a city with a large black population.
Within that context, the Thomas show is both a major salute to an important rising artist and an expression of an institutional priority — a good one.
Since December 2012, in addition to the Thomas show, the museum has held exhibitions on the 20th-century paintings of William H. Johnson and on the work of contemporary artists Fred Wilson and Carrie Mae Weems, all African-American. A fifth exhibition on prints by African-Americans is being installed in the museum’s Focus Gallery and will open soon.
This sudden spike in interest raises questions about the museum’s objectives, how it plans to define and measure success, how African-Americans and all Greater Clevelanders are reacting, and how the museum intends to follow up.
The museum’s current silence on the topic – several staff members didn’t respond to a request for information on Thursday — very likely stems from high-level turnover and the turmoil surrounding David Franklin’s resignation as the museum’s director in October after trustees discovered he had lied to cover up an affair with an employee. Franklin had said it was a priority for him to focus more on African-American artists, but he’s gone.
The current lack of a clear message on this topic is unfortunate. Here’s hoping the museum can be more forthright about its current engagement with Cleveland’s black community, and how the Thomas show fits into that project. The show itself is magnificent; it would also be good to hear more about the larger context into which the museum has placed it, and what that bodes for the future.