Advertising and Identity Intertwine at Ringling Museum



In a world full of advertisement, people grow numb to the everlasting bombardment of slogans, snapshots, flashing neon lights and PhotoShopped persuasion that is daily life—or at least they think they do. Opening this Sunday, February 11, in the Monda Gallery of the Ringling Museum of Art, a new exhibition showcasing the work of conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas will make audiences look at this daily deluge in a new light. Curated by Ringling Museum Curator of Photography Chris Jones, the exhibition includes work from three separate series, and ephemera not previously shown.

Beginning with Caesar’s Visa—a sculptural piece recreating the Visa and Caesar’s Palace slogans in neon lights, then mish-mashing the two into various and often loaded phrases by blinking individual words on and off—Thomas’ work immediately displays both humor and pointed craft, letting the audience know what’s in store. Moving forward, the artist pulls no punches.

With images from one of Thomas’ earlier series, Branded, the artist explores the evolution of African-American identity and the impact of advertising on how it is understood and viewed. One image shows the faceless torso of a black man, the famous Nike swoosh literally branded in welted scars across his chest. “A lot of our early formation of our identity happens around the same time that we become aware of brands,” says Jones, and thus, especially for the young, branding and advertising can hold enormous power. For Thomas, that brand was Nike, which became near synonymous with black athleticism by tying the brand to Michael Jordan, among others. In another image, a similarly faceless black football player dives with the ball but chains lashed to his ankle hold him back, evoking a history of slavery while reminding that black male identity remains defined by the physical power of the body.

Through two other series featured—Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968-2008 and Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015—Thomas more directly explores and challenges the language of advertising. Selecting advertisements through history, he removes all ad copy, slogans and brand names, leaving only the raw image to speak for itself. Arranged in a collection, they lay bare much about the thought processes of the time, and how they have or have not changed. “And because there is no one author of each of these images,” says Jones, “[Thomas] sees them as bellwethers—they reflect collective ideas and social values.” And savvy viewers will make note of the dates chosen as endpoints for the two projects.

And while selections from Reflections in Black by Corporate America reveal racist attitudes from the Blaxploitation era and beyond, it’s the more extensive collection from the latter series, charting the evolution of marketing to white women from the height of the suffragette movement to modern day, that most completely reflects the scale of Thomas’ concept. Showing an image from each decade, shifting attitudes towards women through history become apparent, as they are seen at different times as delicate creatures, part of the war effort, a burden and, often, an object of sexual desire.

In the center of the room, encased in glass, visitors can see some of the original ads, on loan from Thomas and never before shown alongside the artist’s work. Some help make sense of the images, others further bewilder—and some brand names will be surprising. “I hope it provokes us to think,” says Jones, “and makes us pay attention to consumer culture and the messages that circulate even today.”

Opening February 11, the Hank Willis Thomas exhibit runs at Ringling Museum through June 10.

Pictured: "Caesar's Visa" by Hank Willis Thomas. Photo by Phil Lederer.

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