An Archaeology of Advertising: Hank Willis Thomas opens “Unbranded” at the Block [Video]

Over 350 guests joined artist Hank Willis Thomas at the Block Museum on April 14, 2018 for a talk on his politically charged work and the Block Museum exhibition Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded. The exhibition brings together selections from two bodies of work: Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008 and Unbranded: A Century of White Women 1915-2015. By digitally removing all text and product names from advertising the artist allows the resulting images to stand alone, asking the viewer to question the assumptions underlying popular media, both past and present.

Watch the Opening Lecture

Excerpts from Hank Willis Thomas’s lecture:

There’s a book called Everything but the Burden, edited by Greg Tate with an essay by Carl Hancock Rux in it, and he says, “There’s something called black in America and there’s something called white in America, and I know them when I see them but I will forever be unable to explain the meaning of them, because they are not real even though I have a very real place in my daily way of seeing, a fundamental relationship to my ever revolving understanding of history, and a critical place in my relationship to humanity.” And, this wrestling with this, both, the notion of who I am externally, what people see, and then when I look outside and I just see the world, I don’t see … If I do see my brown hands, that I notice that they’re not black. I am constantly feeling the need to challenge all of society’s rules about how I can be and who I should be. I also find it sometimes challenging to understand what authenticity is and where to place my certain feelings around them, especially because I recognize how advertising is the most powerful ubiquitous language in the world and it shapes many things that we see about ourselves and the way that we value others.

I was really interested in how I could look at the language of advertising and talk about things that advertising couldn’t responsibly talk about. There’s a poet, Sonia Sanchez, who recently I heard her speak and she said, “You’ve got to deny the terms that they give you, because as soon as they start telling you who you are, that’s when they start to tell you kind of what you care about, what you do, and what you, you know, they define your life.” I think a lot about that as what I think about my relationship to race.

So, the project is called Unbranded: Reflections of Black from 1968 to 2008. I took two ads for every year from 1968 to 2008, and I removed all the advertising information in a way to track blackness as an idea over the course of these 40 years. I chose 1968 as a symbolic end of the Civil Rights movement when Martin Luther King and JFK and RFK were assassinated, but then I just chose 2008 not knowing that yet another Chicagoan would be elected president 40 years later.


So, the series was kind of for me this learning about myself, about our history, and about our culture, and I started to think, again I guess, about other moments in American history. Because, at the time, prior to 1968 African Americans weren’t really featured in ads. At the same time, it was 2015 and I was thinking about women in this country still have not had the right to vote for 100 years yet. To think that half the population in this democracy didn’t have the right to vote, and considering that another large portion, African Americans and Native Americans in the kind of occupied land in the Southwest, also didn’t have the right to vote, you recognize that we have not been a democracy for very long, if at all.

These are the things that I was really curious about investigating. So, I wanted to really look at American history through another lens in a different timeline with the Century of White Women series.

I recognize that what I can do within my own work is like look at the past and bring it closer to the present. I haven’t yet gotten to the place where I can really imagine the future. There’s a great artist from South Africa, Nicolas Lobos, says that we have to live in the future that we want because that way we won’t be surprised when we get there. This idea of like not waiting for this imaginary future, being like this is the future. I’m hopefully building toward that.


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