Home Visual Arts Hank Willis Thomas: Pitch Blackness

Hank Willis Thomas: Pitch Blackness

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The issue of race is not black and white. And what isn’t grey is the fact that this fictitious idea of “race” has throughout history picked at the color spectrum in order to ‘extric-hate’. If one were to begin a discussion as to the maniac nature of such dynamic sensibilities one only need refer to Hank Willis Thomas.

In his solo show (an adjunct of the Contemporaries, headed by Moran Bar-Kochva and Rodney Reid, titled “Pitch Blackness”) at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea we were in for a treat. Unlike many race-related art exhibitions, “Pitch Blackness” seemed to be addressing the general audience rather than targeting a specific portion of American society.

The general open vibe, instilled by the artist’s natural, easy going character (as he gave us a collective tour of his work) helped draw each individual member into the art work without fear of violating the rules of  ‘political correctness’. The use of past and present advertising techniques and patterns facilitated an outlet for each viewer’s own personal experiences to adapt themselves to the general message of the work: every individual should see himself within these labels of race because their fabrication is never black and white.

The title “Pitch Blackness” itself has a dual meaning. The first literally stands for pitch blackness, a totally pure experience of black which never exists in reference to race since African Americans are never “black” but usually  “coffee” as Willis Thomas explains. The second places the emphasis on Pitch as the idea that the concept of race has to be pitched, it has to be advertised in order to fit into certain categories.

Although a difficult and highly abstract concept to comprehend, it is manifested in certain logos which American consumers associate with the African American culture. A prime example is the Timberland tree, which Willis Thomas has exaggerated, transforming it into a tree of knowledge in which the viewer physically can see himself in the reflective material. A Michael Jordan nearly reaches the apex of his abnormally high jump ready to dunk his b-ball, or perhaps to grab the fruit of knowledge?

We may recognize right away the Timberland logo, or the Michael Jordan logo because our eyes are trained by consumerism, but there are some things we simply hide behind a nice smile. Take the stark “It Didn’t Just Grow by Itself.” Two photos are placed side by side. The one to the right captures an Asian woman working the fields under the splendid sun with her basket full of healthy hyper-green leaves strapped to her head welcoming you, the viewer, with a huge bubbly smile on her face. The photo to the left depicts an African American woman with the same inviting vitality in her eyes as she is picking cotton from the cotton field. The picture to the left is reminiscent of slavery, and would never be acceptable as a marketing device in the US, whereas the other would be, and is, totally acceptable, even though it still basically shows slavery and the exploitation of the poor. The neon installation on the opposite wall prints a ghostly, sarcastic advertisement on the glass covering the photos-“This Is My Best Times.”

Also drawing from the dark side of history is the series of twenty black and white paintings on canvas arranged in two parallel rows. Inspired by an Ernest Withers photo of a 1968 sanitation strike in Memphis in which workers were seen to have carried identical posters with the words “I AM/A MAN,” Willis Thomas again adapts this slice of the past into present day culture.  A delightful rhythm of phrases with different emotions attached to each struck varying black or white keys in the viewers. “I AM/ A MAN,””I BE/A MAN,” “I AM/THE MAN,” “I AM/AMEN.” Tucked nicely towards the center is the perfect encapsulation of the show-“I AM/MANY.” One minute the estranged man is asking “Am I not a man?”, then 20 years later he declares that “He is the man,”…. at least in certain consumer parables he certainly is.

What follows is an interview that I conducted with Hank which goes further in dissecting the race hate mythology that we still find ourselves in;

Do you think racial tensions are being heightened or decreased due to the inauguration of an African American president?

I have absolutely no idea.
Do you or other African Americans find the term “black” offensive. There are terms used that are acceptable only in specific social constructs. Do you think the complexity of language, speaking the same language as others, is in fact a barrier?

I have a larger problem with the notion of a unified black perspective than I do any word or name that could be attributed to me.

What artists have influenced you in the past/where do you get your inspiration other than your personal experiences?

I get my inspiration from TV and popular culture. Lorna Simpson, Carrie Mae Weems, Jim Goldberg, Larry Sultan, Irving Penn, Glenn Ligon, Paul Pfeiffer, Ellen Gallagher, Kerry James Marshall and 1000 others, mostly my peers.

I understand that PUMA was the sponsor for the show at the Rubell Family Collection. How do you feel about brand names being associated to racial identities? (i.e. puma with Usain Bolt from Jamaica) Do you think this could create further divisions and do you think that these ideas are created by those individuals who are at the top of the social pyramid?

The conversation about how corporate branding appropriates tropes of racial identity is something I’ve worked with frequently. My feelings oscillate around this issue and I think that’s the reason I did Unbranded: Reflections in Black. I think we will have truly evolved when we don’t see a Puma endorsement for the fastest man on earth as a race issue so much as a savvy investment in a specific individual or team. Some would say that this is no different than the way black bodies were used, marketted in the past. And I can’t refute that either.

Then again, using these well known icons such as the Timberland and the Johnny Walker creates something that can be understood and experienced by each individual regardless of race, so in a sense, there is another side to the exploitation of the media. (If you want to comment on this)

No comment

What was the general reaction to your work during Miami art Basel?

I was really just excited to be showing the work and was even more overwhelmed by the positive response to it. Many people were able to see themselves in the project. Because it spanned 40 years of advertisements, the viewers often recalled specific moments or trends that the advertisements were talking to.

Do you think there can ever be a time when the fictitious idea of “race” can be abolished?


Have you found a sense of stronger personal identity because in fact you don’t have one singular identity? I know you said you went from a public white school to private all-white prep school to an all black public school. What was you key in staying true to yourself and finding your balance?

Going to a diverse range of schools, ie, public, private and arts, gave me the experience of being part of the majority, part of the minority and both, being in the middle. Anyone who’s had that experience will probably tell you that its all virtually the same. I’ve always just been myself and no matter how hard I tried, I’ve never been able to be anything other than who and what I am. Perhaps the greatest fortune is that I’ve come to like that person.

Do you think the rise in technological innovations and its biproduct- globalization- will have impact on the idea of race? Some argue that because of globalization, people feel the need to create stronger subgroups within societies so that they don’t lose grip within this big blanket of globalization.

Yes I do believe that globalization will impact the conversation of race. It already has. I don’t see a disconnection between the process of globalization that was exemplified in the transatlantic slave trade and what’s happening now. I think its an evolution of consciousness for the whole human species that’s taking 10s of 1000s of years.

What are some of your future endeavors/projects.

I’m working on Question Bridge Black Male/Black Mail which is a experimental non-fiction video project collaboration with Chris Johnson that investigates questions and answers related to black male identity in the 21st century.
I’m also working with Cause Collective on another video project, a global exploration for universal truth in a project called The Truth is I am You.
I’m also doing an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum with Willie Cole where we respond to objects in the Amistad Collection of African American Artifacts.

And finally where can one buy your book ‘Pitch Blackness’ which documents your latest work?

It’s published by Aperture and can be found at all the usual suspects.