Decontextualized: A Review of Works by Hank Willis Thomas

By Heather Outwater and Morgan Barnett

“Ads really aren’t about the products. It’s about what myths and generalizations we can attach.” This is a quote by Hank Willis Thomas, the artist behind Ubranded: A Century of White Women 1915 – 2015, the extensive gallery show that currently occupies both the galleries here on campus and those downtown at Marketview Arts. This idea is hard to take in, because ads are used to market products, right? That’s the reason we make them. However, Thomas challenges this with the work that he does. Ubranded: A Century of White Women 1915 – 2015 is a collection of advertisement images from the last 100 years that solely follows trends in the media focusing on white women. More importantly, these ads are void of any text or logos to inform the viewer of which product the photograph was initially taken for. By doing this, the viewer is left with the photograph only and isn’t influenced by anything except for their own experiences.

As is true for a multitude of artistic work, the meaning often changes within the eyes of each viewer. This is also true for Thomas’s work in this show. One person’s impression of an image can be completely different from another’s, and everyone has their own experiences, whether they’re influenced by their childhood, where they grew up, or what generation they are a part of. The beauty of these images, being stripped from a commercial theme, is that “You take the context away and you’re left with something that you have to deal with,” says York College Gallery Director, Matthew Clay-Robison. Furthermore, some of these advertisements are very well known and by one look, one might know what the product is. This influences that person’s opinion of the image. However, they still might see it in a different light without the product information telling them what to think. Through personal perspectives, each viewer has their own experience with the art and takes in different aspects of it. It’s difficult to explain this phenomena to a person who hasn’t seen the stripped images for themselves.

There is a wide variety of themes, scenes, and messages in this collection of Thomas’s work. While viewing these “unbranded” images, one can see both the idea of women oppression and women empowerment. She’s all tied up… in a poor system is an image from 1951 showing a woman in a straightjacket. She looks appallingly at her typewriter but without any reference, one does not know if this is a comment on women in the workplace or she is merely frustrated at what’s in front of her. Another image is Aggressive Loyalty (1963). To those who know what this image is for, it can be seen as powerful; she would rather get in a fight than give up her cigarette. However, without prior knowledge, one could assume abuse was involved. This guy’s the limit is a more recent example from 2000. There is a depiction of a dominant male figure straddling a woman who seemingly has no power and an idealized body. An image that shows a woman in a difficult and powerful position is Failure is not an option, from 1997. One can tell that she is among soldiers and she looks determined and serious about her role. Thomas explores these themes and more in this extensive collection.

Behind all of this, Hank Willis Thomas is a black man commenting on a history of white women. One might ask, why does he have the authority to curate history in this way? One of the reasons is that one of the biggest marketing campaigns is race and for years and years, companies marketed whiteness to get the public to buy from them. Also, the values associated with an advertisement are deeper than the surface and he wanted to explore that in this body of work by taking the context away and leaving only the values. Lastly, this conversation about women and the fight for equality needs to continue, and it’s a topic that everyone should be trying to spread.

Thomas allows us to learn about our culture by stripping common advertisements into the bare bones of a single image. “Art is here to challenge us to ask questions. That is something that is really lacking in our media and cultural landscape. We are afraid to ask questions.” – Hank Willis Thomas

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