Hank Willis Thomas likes images; he especially likes advertising images. “I’m so seduced by them,” the New York-based photo-conceptual artist has said.
Thomas’s dazzled if wary fascination with the scale and influence of the advertising industry led to his breakthrough appropriative work, Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, which creatively scrutinizes ads aimed at an African-American audience. The series, which he has described as “a collaboration with eighty-two unwitting photographers, art directors, and copywriters”, consists of eighty-two print advertisements. These are presented chronologically—two being drawn from each year from 1968, when Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, to 2008, when the United States elected its first black president—and stripped of all typography or other signs of branding. “When you ‘unbrand’ an ad”—remove all type, logos and so on—“you reveal what’s really going on behind it. It sometimes speaks to the genius, and it sometimes speaks to the absurdity, of what’s happening.”
“I love the language of advertising because it asks you as a viewer to do so much and we all do it so passively,” Thomas has explained. The point of Unbranded is precisely to force the viewer to engage actively with that language. As the artist has pointed out, most of these ads were dreamed up by white men, “so it’s interesting to think how white men are in a sense shaping black identity through creating ads for African-Americans to consume.”
On the ethics of appropriation—is making art in this way a kind of theft?—Thomas has said: “I do think appropriation is akin to stealing, even though I think the ownership of advertising images is questionable. But for me it would feel more like stealing if I thought ‘I really wish I’d taken that image myself so I’m just going to use it.’” His practices involves a kind of détournement, hijacking ad-land images to ask provocative questions about their makers’ fantasies in relation to their target audience. What makes the resulting works all the more compelling is that their “message” is far from obvious, Thomas having seemingly internalized Guy Debord and Gil J Wolman’s maxim: “Détournement is less effective the more it approaches a rational reply.”