The Elusive Concept of Blackness

Through photography and film, artist Hank Willis Thomas explores what it means to be Black today.

By Beandrea Davis Nov 04, 2007

 YOUNG BLACK MEN have the highest homicide-victim rate of any group in the United States. The statistic hit home for Hank Willis Thomas seven years ago, when his cousin Songha Willis was shot to death over a gold chain on a February night outside a Philadelphia nightclub.

Working with Kambui Olujimi, Willis Thomas created a short film called Winter in America about the tragedy. But he didn’t get a crew and cast for actors. Instead, Willis Thomas used toy cars and G.I. Joe-like dolls, some of which he’d played with as boy, to re-enact the shooting.

The four-minute short film is both a memorial and a hard-hitting critique of materialism in the “post-Black” era. A visual artist who works primarily in digital photography and film, Willis Thomas says the killing of his cousin remains his main source of inspiration.

“All my work is about what I learned and what I lost when the person closest to me was killed over a chain,” he has written on his website. 

Willis Thomas began taking photographs when he was 12. As the only child of Deborah Willis, a noted photographer and expert on the history of Black photography, he grew up immersed in a community of influential Black photographers in New York City, including Carrie Mae Weems and Lorna Simpson. He spent his weekdays after school at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where his mother worked for 13 years.

At 31, Willis Thomas has had his work published in numerous books and featured in exhibitions across the country. He has received prestigious fellowships and awards, including the 2007 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Photography.
While his work largely deals with some aspect of “Blackness in this new age,” Willis Thomas says he’s aware that he is building on a legacy of Black photography that includes the work of Weems, Simpson and his mother.  “I haven’t contributed enough to put myself officially in their wake,” he says. His work, however, is already a part of the permanent collections at The Studio Museum in Harlem and The International Center of Photography.

The project Willis Thomas is most known for is Branded, a series that uses popular advertising images to highlight the myriad ways that Blackness has been commodified. In a piece called Branded Head the ubiquitous Nike swoosh is emblazoned onto the side of a young Black male’s bald head. In the image Jordan and Johny Walker in Timberland circa 1923, a Timberland logo has been altered to show the lynching of a Black man whose body takes the shape of the classic Michael “Air” Jordan stance. The popularized image of Scotch-maker Johnny Walker “keeps walking” away from the lynched man. In a third piece, the American Express card becomes Afro-American Express with images from the Middle Passage embedded in the card’s emblem. 

The idea for Branded, Willis Thomas writes, came from “thinking about Black men as free billboards for corporations, giving any brand instant street cred.” This, he adds, was happening during the 1990s, when people—Black men, in particular—were literally being shot for Air Jordan sneakers and Triple Fat Goose jackets. It’s not the brand itself but the lack of critical thinking about the consequences of engaging in branding that’s problematic, he notes.

“I do all my work on an Apple computer and use some of the same brands my work criticizes,” he writes. “In this day and age, I think it would be hard for any person living in the Western Hemisphere to avoid branding themselves in some way.” But he insists: “By buying and wearing many products, we are validating many of these corporations, so we should think twice.”

In Unbranded, Willis Thomas investigates the trajectory of the “performance of Blackness” from the last 40 years by removing the logos from advertisements geared towards Blacks. The project features two ads from every year between 1968 and 2008 and will include 80 images when finished. Stripped of logos, the images appear like caricatures of corporate notions of Blackness and are blunt in their use of stereotypes about Blacks. For example, drawing upon stereotypical depictions that infantilize Blacks in the media images, the piece Nobody Touches My Blue Bonnet circa 1978 depicts a Black man wearing a blue bonnet ready to eat a stack of pancakes. Another piece from 1980 called The Johnson Family, which was originally a Johnson & Johnson ad, shows a Black man standing prominently behind his wife and child with his arms around them in a firm embrace, visually situating him as the stereotypical head of the family.

Much of Willis Thomas’s work centers on making sense of what famed Studio Museum curator Thelma Golden called the “post-Black” era, a term coined for a new cadre of Black artists who see Blackness in a global context. In his 3-D piece It’s About Time, Willis Thomas reflects on the Black Power Movement a generation later amidst the backdrop of “bling” culture and hip-hop.

Constructed as a sundial, the piece features an image of a giant Black Power-style fist, except this man is donning an expensive wool jacket and a Rolex watch. Plaques mark each tick of the clock with “important commodity and power-related moments in African-American history” amidst the vertical image of the fist.

 “We went from having leaders like W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X to leaders like Jay-Z, 50 Cent and Oprah,” Willis Thomas observes. “Black power has turned into something that’s much more about individualism and commodity.”

Ironically, Willis Thomas says he didn’t know he wanted to be an artist until 2004, when he was preparing to graduate from California College of the Arts with two M.F.A. degrees, one in photography and one in visual criticism. “Up until then, I was just trying to make sense out of the world,” he writes.  “Photography, especially, gave me an excuse to ask questions, look deeper and then try to re-present what I saw for other people.”

Seven years after starting out on a journey to make sense of the implications of his cousin’s death, Willis Thomas says one of his most profound discoveries was that despite its real implications, Blackness as a concept is elusive. He references a quote from writer Carl Hancock Rux: “There is something called Black in America and there is something called white America, and I know them when I see them, but I will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them.”

Documenting the lives of Black men in the U.S. is the subject of Willis Thomas’s next major film project, Question Bridge: Black Male, a collaboration with filmmaker Chris Johnson. Funded by a $35,000 award from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Renew Media Arts Fellowship, the project will present a complex look at what it means to be Black and male and will feature conversations from videotaped question-and-answer sessions among Black men on a variety of themes.

“[Black men] are all boxed into the same group, even though we don’t necessarily agree or relate to one another,” Willis Thomas says. “Most people in America have this fear of Black men. That affects how we relate to one another.” Making conscious links between the past and its effect on the present remains a strong motivating factor for Willis Thomas. Last year, along with his mother, Deborah, he co-curated Engulfed by Katrina, a photography exhibit at New York University documenting the effects of the disaster.

“It is too soon to forget about where we have come from,” he says. “I am trying to talk about the things we as a society are ‘over’ exactly because history repeats itself.”