Art review: Hank Willis Thomas provokes thoughts on stereotypes

By Dorothy Shinn
Beacon Journal art and architecture critic

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Zero Hour, 2012. Hank Willis Thomas (American, born 1976) in collaboration with Sanford Biggers (American, born 1970). Digital chromogenic prints and plexiglass with Lumisty film; 40 1/2 x 180 in. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York. � Hank Willis Thomas

Don’t be confused. You may think this is a Realist photography exhibit, but it’s actually far from it.

Hank Willis Thomas, on view concurrently at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Transformer Station through March 9, is a two-part exhibit that’s all about concept — how what we see determines what we think.

At the Cleveland museum is Thomas’ entire early major series, the 82-part Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America, 1968-2008. At Transformer Station is part two, the five-screen video installation Question Bridge: Black Males.

Basically, Thomas means us to question everything: what we see, especially in the media; what we think; stereotypes and generalizations; and artificial social constructs such as class and race.

While the show at the art museum focuses on his early career, the one at Transformer Station is so new that it was produced just in time to be shown there, according to Barbara Tannenbaum, curator of photography.

This is the artist’s largest museum exhibition to date and his first in Ohio, and the two shows span his decade-long career.

In Unbranded, Thomas assembles print ads targeting African-American consumers in popular magazines such as Time, Sports Illustrated, Ebony and Playboy.

We see famous black actors and beautiful models posing in scenes straight out of Ozzie and Harriet (or for the younger generation, Desperate Housewives).

He chose two ads per year that ran between 1968 and 2008. He then paired off the images and removed all text and branding information from them, forcing us to look at them as simply visual objects.

This causes the viewer to ask what’s really going on. As soon as we do that, we should begin to realize that words aren’t necessary to convey the import of the image.

As soon as we realize we can fill in the blanks, we should also begin asking ourselves: Why are we able to interpret these images without text? The answer is that these images speak to both our aspirations and our prejudices — and that’s not all.

We have been so well trained to cast one another into stereotypes that we have become partners in making those stereotypes real.

Once we realize that we are all complicit in the way advertising works, we come to some dismaying conclusions: It doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is; if you are looking at the images, they are making you think certain things.

We need to ask ourselves where we get those ideas, and why those ideas and not others are the ones that come to mind. This is the concept behind Unbranded.

Over at Transformer Station, Question Bridge: Black Males is a collaborative video project by Thomas, Chris Johnson, Bayeté Ross Smith, and Kamal Sinclair. It’s a dialogue between black men who come from a wide range of geographic, economic, generational, educational and social backgrounds, discussing black male identity in America.

Also on view are selections from several of Thomas’s past series, including Branded and Strange Fruit, new works, and a powerful video by Thomas and Kambui Olujimi, Winter in America.

The video uses stop-action animation and G.I. Joe figures to act out the shooting death of Thomas’ cousin in a robbery. The artists, who played with similar toys, now 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 two exhibits, inspired by the museum’s acquisition of several of the artist’s works, seek to and largely succeed at expanding our understanding of not only how we think about race in America, but how such apparently neutral outlets as advertising are hardly neutral at all, and how, in addition to selling us products, they have actually sold us what we assumed were our own thoughts.

Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to her at the Akron Beacon Journal, P.O. Box 640, Akron, OH 44309-0640 or

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