Probing the intersection of identity, race, class, media, and popular culture, Hank Willis Thomas appropriates images from historical advertisements in order to highlight the ways they construct identity and power. “In recent years, I have approached my art practice assuming the role of a visual culture archaeologist,” says the artist. “I am interested in the ways that popular imagery informs how people perceive themselves and others around the world.”
Exxon: Black Street Art is part of Thomas’s photographic series “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968–2008” (2008), which features imagery from print advertisements directed toward an African American audience of the past fifty years. Stripping these images of their logos and advertising language, Thomas reframes the cultural stereotypes they reinforce and the forms of inequality they perpetuate.Through this series, Thomas intends to show, “that advertising is never really about the product. It's about what myths or generalizations you can get people to buy into . . . I removed all the advertising information as a way to track blackness in the corporate eye, from the moment that ‘black’ people became a demographic that was worth marketing to.” Exxon: Black Street Art references the 1974–75 photography exhibition “The Street Art of Black America,” which was supported by Exxon and presented in Houston, Newark, and New York. Focusing on this sponsorship by one of the world’s largest oil companies, Thomas directs critical attention to its support of the arts; the image points to the contrast between Exxon’s core business and the image of a black child creating colorful street art.
Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976, Plainfield, New Jersey) lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. His work has been exhibited widely throughout the United States and internationally, including solo exhibitions at SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah (2017); California African American Museum, Los Angeles (2016); International Center of Photography, New York (2013); Baltimore Museum of Art (2009); and Philadelphia Photo Arts Center (2008). His work has been included in important group exhibitions at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town (2016); Brooklyn Museum (2016); Guggenheim Museum Bilbao (2015); International Center of Photography, New York (2013), and many others. His work is held in numerous institutional and private collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Smart Museum of Art, Chicago; and Kadist Art Foundation, Paris.