Hank Willis Thomas: What We Ask Is Simple

Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) is an American conceptual artist and photographer who addresses themes of identity, history, and popular culture as they relate to African Americans. His work shows the stereotypes used to portray African Americans as well as the uniqueness and humanity of the individual beneath the stereotype.

Thomas was born in Plainfield, NJ and in 1998 earned a BFA from New York University in Photography and Africana Studies. Thomas also received a MFA in photography and a MA in visual criticism from the California College of the Arts. Thomas’ mother, Deborah Willis, is also a photographer and is the chair of the Photography department at NYU. Professor Willis’ work as a photo historian has influenced her son’s development as an artist. According to Thomas, his mother “realized in the history of photography a lot of experiences of African Americans were actually cropped out of that history. She started to do her own research and discovered that African Americans had been taking photographs that were very different than mainstream photographs and how that perspective shifts our notion of history.”[3]

Thomas’ early work is the B®anded (2006) series of photographs. In these works he superimposes the Nike logo onto the bodies of black men, reminiscent of the branding of slaves by slave owners. His project Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America (2005-2008) contrasts B®anded by appropriating magazine advertisements from 1968 to 2008 and digitally removes the logos and text. In this series he allows us to see how the advertisement industry portrays African Americans and how stereotypes of the past are still employed today.

The What We Ask Is Simple exhibition at the Jack Shainman Gallery shows Thomas’ recent work studying 20th century protests in Africa, North America, and Europe. In this show flash photography is encouraged, as his work employs a “retroflective” technology that is activated by a camera flash. Each work is essentially a combination of two images with the second image only becoming visible during the moment a camera’s flash illuminates the surface. This encouraged me as a viewer to complete the work and closely examine each piece with my phone. Each picture was based on well-known photographs of protest and resistance. The experience of viewing his works is what I imagine it is like to work in a darkroom developing photographs, where one must work to get the images on the negatives to reveal themselves. By employing this technique he gets his viewers to literally and figuratively see the iconic images in a new light.

Hank Willis Thomas' work featuring retroflective technology, activated by a camera flash. One image shows a white man holding an American flag in a menacing manner, about to hit an African American man. The other image shows just the flag.

Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist and photographer who uses his art to help us understand how African Americans are portrayed in our culture. His exhibition What We Ask Is Simple uses technology in a clever way to get us to take a closer look at iconic images of protest and see them in a new way.

[1] Wikipedia contributors. "Hank Willis Thomas." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 29 Mar. 2018. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.

[2] Wikipedia contributors. "Deborah Willis (artist)." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 Apr. 2018. Web. 15 Apr. 2018.

[3] Jack Shainman. “Jack Shainman Gallery - Hank Willis Thomas - September 2013.” Online video clip. YouTube, 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2018.

[4] Guggenheim Museum. “Hank Willis Thomas.” Guggenheim Museum. Web. 13 Apr. 2018.

[5] Jack Shainman Gallery. “Hank Willis Thomas..” Jack Shainman Gallery. Web. 13. Apr. 2018.

[6] Jack Shainman Gallery. “Hank Willis Thomas - What We Ask Is Simple.” Jack Shainman Gallery. 29 Mar. 2018. Print. 13 Apr. 2018.