Hank Willis Thomas, HOPE and QUESTION BRIDGE at Duke University, Durham, NC

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Hank Willis Thomas
A collaborative, multi-site exhibition, curated by Diego Cortez, January 20 – March 4, 2011, John Hope Franklin Center and Franklin Humanities Institute, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina

Hank Willis Thomas, HOPE and QUESTION BRIDGE: BLACK MALE are two concurrent solo exhibitions of Thomas' work in Durham, North Carolina, curated by Diego Cortez. HOPE is an exhibition at the John Hope Franklin Center of eight works that, as Cortez says, "aim to distill the conceptual photographer's work into a quintessence, an epitome, a perfect example. A concise survey spanning a mere seven years, HOPE presents the zenith of this young artist's work." QUESTION BRIDGE: BLACK MALE, a video in progress, is screened at the Franklin Humanities Institute (Smith Warehouse) in an old tobacco mill on top of which flies a helium balloon in the shape of a comic book quotation bubble and it reads HOPE.
    HOPE opens with a lenticular and rectangular text as image. It reads HOPE, and as you move by it or back and forth, it becomes HOPEFUL and HOPELESS - the FUL and LESS interchangeable, overlapping, canceling each other out, arguing against each other. Having seen the funny and beautiful balloon hovering above the other show, I couldn't help but feel more helpful than hopeless. HOPELESS HOPEFUL is from the ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL SERIES. You feel trapped in limbo, a kind of purgatory, our status quo of having the first African-American President of the United States who galvanized this country out of 8 years of dreadful republican rule but into what? After the recent republican sweep of mid-term elections and the absurd rise of the Tea Party, one can't help but feel hopeless at times. While HOPELESS HOPEFUL is not a photograph, it functions photographically: it is black and white; it is an image full of contradiction - an inherent problem in most social documentary photography; it is a caption. Like Felix Gonzalez-Torres's black billboards with strings of white text - historical events and dates that conjure photographic images in viewers' minds - Thomas' lenticular print sears its ambivalent position into our eyes. Do we fight and resist, struggle and survive, hope and dream or do we submit and acquiesce, become complacent and apathetic, misanthropic and abject?
    Thomas is known for his striking appropriation of images throughout history, as well as for his shocking performative acts of scarring and branding - eight NIKE swooshes scarred onto his chest or one swoosh on his scalp, BLACK POWER stuck into the smiling front teeth of a black man. This show presents unforgettable examples of both of these modes of production. IT DIDN"T JEST GROW BY ITSELF, 1984/2008, from the REBRANDED SERIES, is a diptych of two appropriated photographic images. On the left is a nostalgic photographic image of a smiling black woman bent over in a sunny cotton field, clouds of cotton in her happy hands, her hair pulled back in a white scarf. On the right is a more pixilated color photograph of a smiling Asian woman in a field of green tea leaves. Trin Ti Minh Ha states that "cultures become culture through the same eye." Thomas is not equating cultures but he is drawing attention to the manner in which we see and represent other cultures, even our own, as idyllic and equal, despite extreme and specific differences and intense struggle. These are images of labor, of women working, most likely in unfair conditions; both women rendered "other" to these assumed white readers/viewers. What intrigues most is the title that is included at the bottom of the images, "It didn't jest grow by itself," a sarcastic retort, a pedagogical moment between mother and child, a voice of defensive pride, a slap in our placid faces of privilege. Thomas knows how to take us there willingly, to the zone of self-implication and critical analyses of systems of representation and the spectacular media, both historical and current. Diego Cortez writes, "Both women smile as they work, blurring the distinction between historic slavery and the low-wage slavery on which contemporary consumer capitalism is premised."
    Thomas' reductive collages ALIVE WITH PLEASURE and BELIEVE IT, from his 2010 series FAIR WARNING, remove all but the actors from cigarette advertisements targeting Black audiences. This technique, applied systematically, reveals the other techniques applied to the actors, showing up their ultra-stylized "blackness" as a shameless attempt at commodifying consciousness and identity. Revealing and resisting a racism that markets itself as capitalism – funnily enough, by making the ads much whiter – Thomas creates a discursive space where there was once only a behind-closed-doors conversation. Cortez says this is a "raw depiction of the marketing of blackness."
    ALONG THE WAY is a video mosaic from 2007, commissioned for the Oakland International Airport in California, in collaboration with ©ause Collective. ALONG THE WAY is a collection of over 1,500 video portraits of the diverse community members in Oakland, from a young boy in a suit posing for the camera and another boy making faces to an old lady clown and men giggling, women dancing. It is feels like a commercial for joy, for pleasure, for community. It makes you want to live in Oakland. The hundred of images form a larger image of eyes that Willis zooms in and out of, showing us several or a couple or a grid of portraits, strangers together. This is a much lighter video than the QUESTION BRIDGE: BLACK MALE video across town in which he expands discursive space through a video-mediated conversation among diverse members of the U.S. Black male population. One man asks a question; another in a different location answers. Thomas describes this project; "The goal is to expand the common notions of black masculinity, while simultaneously facilitating a dialogue between Black males who normally might not be able to talk to one another in such a candid manner." The video's style of the consistently centered talking head with only incidental background is similar to the style of Thomas' reductive collages that perhaps it reads as a response to them, in which the consciousnesses of Black males is no longer superficially advertised and consumed; it is performed.
    One black male poses a profound question, like "what's so great about selling crack" or "why am I considered a traitor to my race if I date outside of my race" and another black male answers the question. It is a serious work that raises important issues and questions like the use of the "n word". There is something very sweet and human and real about these black men speaking their truths. I feel uncomfortable even saying this, as a white woman. I feel guilty watching this video, as if I have judged these men myself before knowing them, expecting different answers than I would from white men, but of course they would be different answers. It is the awe and discomfort of listening to these questions and answers, these real stories and experiences that stay with me, that get under my skin and stay there.
    The image that stays with me from the John Hope Franklin Center's HOPE show is the one of the silhouetted lynching tree, HANG TIME CIRCA 1923 (2008), in which Michael Jordan performs his iconic lay-up while dangling from a noose. Cortez writes, "…The Jumpman logo from Nike's Air Jordan ad campaign is reappropriated to reference lynching. Witnessing the Air Jordan logo hanging from a noose on a tree forces the viewer to contemplate the systemic violence against African Americans that is the very emblem of de-humanization, setting the stage for the persistence of racism." Nina Simone's Strange Fruit cries out in my memory and yet, I am jolted by the very contemporary, almost humorous, figure of Jordan - ball glued to his talented hand, legs spread in amazing flight, body taut and victorious. There is no way that his body dangles. It is too strong. Is the noose the noose of success, of sports as profit and entertainment, of stereotypical expectations and roles for black men, or the noose of real criminal and atrocious history that lingers and takes new forms?
    The single monochromatic brown tone photograph, SCARRED CHEST (2003) of Thomas' torso with eight Nike swooshes scarred into his chest makes me dizzy with references. I remember Edward Weston's angelic photograph of Neil's torso. I remember Naomi Klein's critical book NO LOGO. I remember the Nike sweatshops and students organizing against unfair labor practices. Simultaneously, I recognize that many of my "radical" friends wear Nikes without a second thought. City councils encourage the concept of branding to promote growth rather than encouraging engaged civic life. Branding cattle. Branding slaves. Branding athletes. I am lost. And implicated. I struggle to figure out how to talk about such complicated, dense and controversial subjects. Thomas' work demands nothing less of us and everything more.

Name index: 
elin Ohara slavick