Hank Willis Thomas’ photography brings his perception of advertising and its exploitation of the black male in America to the forefront with striking images.
So striking, in fact, they require a cause for pause so that we can think about and reconsider what we are seeing.
For example, the Absolut Vodka bottle he re-designed to reflect a slave ship stock full of African cargo, or his use of the Nike corporate logo branded on the head and chest of a black male — both images require closer inspection and elicit questions about the significance of commodities, our desire to consume and the power of logos.
Pardon the cliché, but there’s only one word to describe Willis Thomas’ work. Powerful. On the other hand, if additional words were required, they would also be short, succinct and descriptive.
Words like “thought provoking” and “socially conscious” come immediately to mind.
Willis Thomas goes beneath the surface as he artistically explores the impacts of consumerism, advertising and the black male image.
Intrigued by advertising since childhood, Willis Thomas thinks of advertising as a new global language; a universal language that can be understood no matter where you are in the world.
He uses this language to communicate how he feels about certain ads. His intention is not to attack consumer driven conglomerates by his use of photographic expression but to instead create a dialog around his images.
A great deal of Willis Thomas’ work was inspired by the tragic death of his cousin, Songha Thomas Willis, who at 27, was murdered execution style during an armed robbery while visiting his grandmother in Philadelphia.
The killers took Songha’s life for a commodity — a gold chain that later sold for $400. This sudden loss spawned the idea for Thomas’ most powerful image in the exhibit.
The image is a play on the MasterCard Priceless campaign. However, in Thomas’ version effervescence is replaced with grief. The hopeful images we are accustomed to seeing have been replaced with a hopeless image of a graveside funeral scene.
The chill in the air overpowers the brightness of the sun. The mourners, clad in overcoats, hats and sunglasses, look out beyond our view at an image that needs no description or visibility. The pain in their faces jumps off the print and into your heart.
In the lower left hand corner sits the familiar MasterCard logo, and the text scattered across the image reads: 3-piece suit $250, new socks $2, gold chain $400, 9mm pistol: $79, Bullet: $.60, Picking the perfect casket for your son: priceless.
The only thing missing are the familiar words “There are some things money can’t buy…for everything else there’s MasterCard.” But here, those words aren’t really necessary.
Willis Thomas’ work will be on display at the Oaklandish Gallery, 411 Second St. (between Broadway and Franklin) in Oakland on Friday, April 8 and starts at 6 p.m..