see.culture.made.radical: the visual history makers – hank willis thomas

February 14, 2014

Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) is an African-American photographer and conceptual artist with a passionate outlook on race, perception and popular culture. Using photography, installations, the internet and various print sources, Thomas strives to bring many societal issues concerning African-Americans to the forefront. In one of his more memorable series, Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, Thomas examines advertisements from 1968 through 2008, and how corporations used a perplexing technique for targeting African-American customers. For most of the ads, Thomas digitally removed any logos, leaving the viewer to wonder what the aforementioned ad was for. Most of the retouched photos were of African-American figures positioned in a way that had little to do with the product being offered. Subtle racism and sexism were apparent in each of these photos that predated back to the civil rights era, up until the present day. Ads are intended to have a literal, specific purpose of drawing in consumers, Thomas has taught us to look closely and discover the potential hidden agendas.

By Jarrett Johnson, AFROPUNK Contributor *
Artwork © Hank Willis Thomas

Thomas was born in New Jersey to Deborah Willis and Hank Thomas, two people who undoubtedly handed down their artistic genes. Ms. Willis is an art photographer—who’s had fellowships with both The Guggenheim and The MacArthur Foundation, and Mr. Thomas is a real estate developer and a jazz musician who dabbles in film production. Despite his heavy artistic lineage, Thomas was primarily uncertain of his own art endeavors. Thomas went on to receive his BFA from the Tisch School at New York University, and both his MFA in photography and MA in visual criticism, from California College of the Arts. It was this collegiate pursuit that allowed him to fully visualize a career as a gainfully employed artist.


While alerting art appreciators to the significance of perception, Thomas has had quite the prestigious career, and in somewhat of a short time period. He has been featured in the book 25 under 25: Up-and-Coming American Photographers, and published a monograph entitled Pitch Blackness (2008), containing select portions of several of his works. Thomas’ pieces have been displayed in galleries throughout the United States and across international waters, such as; The Studio Museum in Harlem, The Bronx Museum, Oakland Museum of California, the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg and Galerie Anne De Villepoix in Paris. Thomas also maintains a fellowship at the W.E.B. DuBois Institute and at Harvard University. As of late, Thomas is represented by the Jack Shainman Gallery in NYC.

Essentially, the predominantly Caucasian corporations have this idea of who African-Americans are, and what they desire. After many years of carefully aimed advertising, African-Americans seem to accept these ideals as a reality. Thomas is yet another artist in tune with his blackness, and how we are perceived by other races. More important than how other people perceive African-Americans, is how we perceive ourselves. Through the visual aid of photographs, Thomas has continuously placed pop culture under the microscope. Radical thinking often leads to rational theories, and those who question societal norms usually bring deep seeded issues to light. If I were to take one thing from Thomas’ efforts, it would be that perception is created by the past, perpetuated by the present, and altered by the future.

* Jarrett Johnson’s website: