Of all of the artists featured in 30 Americans, the one whose work I found most successful was Hank Willis Thomas. This is because his was among the only work that, in my opinion, truly spoke for itself. I was able to interact with his pieces and grapple with his message without consulting titles or descriptions and without having any prior knowledge of his work. His strategic use of placement, scale, and cropping in conjunction with popular cultural symbols provoked an immediate response, while still enticing me to stay and engage with the pieces further. Among the questions I asked were: What makes this image striking? What makes this scene so familiar at yet so disturbing? How is this particular lens/presentation of racial issues more tangible to the present generation than others?
Basketball and Chain (2003) is the first piece by Hank Willis Thomas with which viewers come in contact in the exhibition and it is a memorable one. It is a photograph, which, despite all understanding of the manipulative capabilities of photography, still commands a certain air of ‘reality’. Its larger than life size is physically overwhelming and suggests that its subject, too, is bigger than one person.
In the image we see a pair of African American feet in an easily recognizable pair of bright white Nike’s—the mark, in our frame of reference, of a serious if not professional athlete. The feet dangle into the top of the frame, one slightly higher than the other, as if the subject had just gone up for a layup. Shackled to his (or her) ankle, however, is an uncharacteristically heavy-feeling basketball that sits in the bottom right corner of the composition. In the middle of the image, reflected in the solid black background and glass cover, stands the viewer—awkward participant-observer of the implied phenomenon. This phenomenon is the degree to which the black male body is commodified in popular cultural by its association with, and dependency on, athletic success and imagery.
Willis’s communication of this phenomenon depends on his use of several elements. Most importantly, his cropping of the image is such that the individual (i.e. features that would distinguish him or her as an individual, such as the face) is absent and subsequently reduced to a set of recognizable and reproducible characteristics. This is also the case in Branded Head (2003), displayed on the same wall. In this image we see a large-scale African American head in strategically cropped profile and set against a white background. The head, presumably of a youngish male, is branded with the familiar Nike checkmark logo. The title of the series, Branded, is a play on words—suggesting both the power/presence of advertising and commercial branding in our everyday lives and the slavish tendency to pigeonhole contemporary black males into entertainment-based and predominately sports-related roles. That the head is in profile, historically a device for distinguishing deviant or subhuman characteristics, is also significant.
What makes Hank Willis Thomas’s work successful is his ability to communicate a message both directly and indirectly—to imply viewer involvement without necessitating additional research or investigation. His use of popular symbols allows almost all viewers to interact with the pieces in some way, even if they are not familiar with his work or with art in general. And this has the effect of making his message universal rather than individual. By situating his narrative of contemporary racial inequity in a larger framework of consumerism and popular culture, Willis is able to call attention to the prevalence of the issue and the structures that allow for it, without isolating it to one incident or demographic group/audience.
Hank Willis Thomas, Basketball and Chain, 2003. Lightjet print, 99" x 55". Rubell Family Collection.
Hank Willis Thomas, Branded Head, 2003. Lightjet print, 99" x 52". Rubell Family Collection, Miami, Florida.
*Please note: the above is in response to 30 Americans as currently exhibited at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville, TN. My opinions are in no way associated with or representative of the Frist Center, the Rubell family, or the artists.