"Advertising plays on a society’s hopes and dreams – it is through this medium that we can glimpse a collective subconscious. It is also a global language in the sense that the ideas that circulate in adverts have as much of an effect on the countries in which they were made as in the countries that they were exported to via mass communication.
South Africa and the USA were founded on quintessentially ‘male frontier mentalities’. Yet, today, both countries position themselves as a beacon of hope for many, as pioneering examples for international human rights with respect to individual freedoms and constitutional rights.
In Ads Imitate Life, I expose the backward attitudes that continue to pervade American advertising, undermining the neat narrative of ‘progress’ that countries like the US hold dear."
– Hank Willis Thomas
In The Rhetoric of the Image, Roland Barthes defines the advertising image as the most ‘intentional’ kind of image. Indeed, the messages behind adverts are direct and unambiguous to achieve their – supposedly – singular aim: selling the product.
Through subtle processes of image reconstruction, African- American artist Hank Willis Thomas complicates seemingly simple meanings behind image-based adverts, revealing their capacity to have much greater power than selling products but also play a disturbing role in constructing and reinforcing social prejudice – with an emphasis on the portrayal of black men and white women in America.
Ads Imitate Life features work from three celebrated series by Thomas, titled: Branded, Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America and Unbranded White Woman, allowing for an in-depth investigation into the visual language strategies of advertising and the cultural stereotypes in which they are rooted.
In Branded, Thomas draws on 20th and 21st century advertising to expose the mechanics of discriminatory typecasting towards black American men who are positioned as ‘other’ within the white American consumerist ideal. The series draws chilling parallels between images of the black male body in modern advertising and the cotton slave trade 200 years ago when the bodies of slaves were literally ‘branded’ to be made legible as owned ‘objects’.
The Unbranded: Reflections in Black Corporate America and Unbranded White Woman series are made up of selected newspaper adverts from 1960s America. The former reveals the carefully constructed stereotypes attributed to African-Americans who are depicted as exotic, savage and sexually dangerous. Unbranded White Woman looks at the positioning of white women as simultaneously sites of sexual agency and as complicit in their objectification and victimization.
While works in Branded are constructed from manipulated advertising images, for the Unbranded series, Thomas makes minimal changes to the adverts, simply removing the original text, logos and slogans to create the necessary space for an unmediated reading of these problematic images. Indeed, by severing the images from their contextual frame, the artist seeks to make overt the subliminal messages constructed through advertising.
At its core, Ads Imitate Life highlights that ads do not, in fact, imitate life but have a very powerful impact on the construction of harmful identifications, compelling us to measure ourselves against images that can be over-generalising and, often, untrue.
Hank Willis Thomas is a photo conceptual artist who works with themes related to identity, history and popular culture. He joined Goodman Gallery in 2010 and featured prominently on Goodman Gallery’s booth at Frieze New York in 2017, for which his work was placed in conversation with South African photographer Mikhael Subotzky and Angolan conceptual photography-based artist Kiluanji Kia Henda. Thomas’ monograph, Pitch Blackness (2008), was published by Aperture. He has exhibited is the U.S. and abroad including: The International Center of Photography, Public Art Fund, The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Studio Museum in Harlem, Musée du quai Branly and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among others. Thomas’ work is in numerous public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art and The Brooklyn Museum. Thomas received a BFA in Photography and Africana studies from New York University and his MFA/MA in Photography and Visual Criticism from the California College of Arts. He also received an honorary doctorate from the Institute for Doctoral Studies in Visual Arts.