Hank Willis Thomas, Da' Nile 1956/2015 Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Hank Willis Thomas, who describes himself as a “visual culture archaeologist,” was in town last week for the opening of his one-man show, Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded, at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art.

Earlier this month, Thomas was announced as a 2018 Guggenheim photography fellow, but he’s a multifaceted artist/activist, perhaps best known as a creator of the Truth Booth—an inflatable room in the shape of a cartoon speech bubble.  The Truth Booth toured the country prior to the 2016 election, inviting the public in to be video-recorded speaking whatever truth was on their mind.

The son of photographer, historian, and MacArthur “genius” Deborah Willis, Thomas is also an analyst of the advertising industry, a longtime focus of his work and the inspiration for his earlier B®ANDED photo series, which examined the relationship between contemporary product branding and the branding of slaves. As this exhibit, curated by the Block’s Janet Dees, demonstrates, he has a practitioner’s understanding of the advertising game (yes, he’s tried it), and is an astute deconstructor of its efforts.

The show consists of 35 images from print ads, all stripped of the logos and texts that were intended to tell viewers how to interpret them. It includes works from two Thomas projects, “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America, 1968-2008” and “Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915-2015.” This is the first time pieces from the two projects have been hung together.

Thomas told an audience at an opening-day lecture Saturday that the construct of race “is a divide-and-conquer strategy,” and  “advertising is the most powerful and ubiquitous language in the world.” He also answered a few questions about the show during an interview in the gallery last week. Here’s an edited version of the interview:

The blackness series came first. What’s the relationship between these two bodies of work?

For the 1968-2008 series, I took two images from each year. I removed all the advertising information as a way to track blackness in the corporate eye, from the moment that “black” people became [in the corporate mind] a demographic that was worth marketing to.

Hank Willis Thomas, Farewell Uncle Tom 1971/2007Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

The century of white women series starts in 1915, about the time that photographs started to appear in print magazines, and extends to 2015, the waning period of the print magazine. It tracks this whole century of image making and storytelling, and you can see clearly how notions of identity are created or reinforced.

Are You the Right Kind of Woman for It? is the image that links the two series. It couldn’t have appeared ten years earlier. And it started me thinking about how white women were being marketed to. It’s an ad for the dresses.

Hank Willis Thomas, Are You the Right Kind of Woman for It? 1974/2007Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Both series show that advertising is never really about the product. It’s about what myths or generalizations you can get people to buy into.

Early images in the white women’s series are heavy on domesticity, then there’s a change.

Before World War II, most ads showed women subservient to men. During the war, you start to see women out on their own, moving forward, doing men’s work. Then, when the war was over, advertisers wanted them to go back home.

Hank Willis Thomas, It’s Done With a Simple Push of the Hand . . . 1946/2015Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

What’s gained by showing the two projects together?

They reference each other. If you saw African-Americans in 1950s ads, they were more likely servants or props. This 1949 ad, Hospitality Is Quickly Recognized, is for beer, although there’s no beer in the image. To sell beer in 1949, they were going back to Gone With the Wind—the idea of this antebellum era, with servants.

Hank Willis Thomas, Hospitality Is Quickly Recognized 1949/2015Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

But over here, in Membership Has Its Privileges, you see the flip side of that. The boy has a kind of white servant.

Hank Willis Thomas, Membership Has Its Privileges 2006/2008Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

There’s also a certain amount of sexual innuendo.

A lot of the inspiration for modern advertising came from Sigmund Freud. His nephew, [public relations guru] Edward Bernays, in a sense founded modern-day advertising.

Hank Willis Thomas, They Satisfy 1942/2015Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

You took out the advertising text, but created your own titles?

Most of the time, I try to get the titles from the ads. They Satisfy came directly from the ad text.

In the 1960s and ’70s, as more and more women were moving into the workplace, a lot of the advertising became more violent. So you’d see  women in chains, and there’s one over there [The Taming of the Shrewd] in a cage.

Because both the ads for African-Americans and for quote-unquote white women were mostly made by white men.

Hank Willis Thomas, The Taming of the Shrewd 1966/2015Credit: Courtesy of Hank Willis Thomas and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

And the mummy in the swimsuit ad?

It’s the European adaptation of Egypt. There’s an erasure of the African-ness. A hand is coming out of the sarcophagus, but the skin color of the person who’s supposed to be in it is totally different. If you had a dark, brown-skinned arm coming out of there, it would have been a totally different message. We titled it Da’ Nile because it’s a denial of the African origins. We know a lot of things about ancient Egypt, and we know no one looked like Elizabeth Taylor.

Do you hate advertising?

No. I love advertising. I think we should be conscious, though, of what we’re consuming, what ideas we’re buying into when we buy products based on the images we see in ads. It’s too often a one-way language, where the companies and the agencies are telling us, but we’re not responding to them unless we’re offended. And by that time they’ve already done their job, because we’re talking about the brand. 

“Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded.” Through 8/5. 10 AM-8 PM Wed-Fri, 10 AM-5 PM Sat-Sun and Tue, Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Dr., Evanston, 847.491.4000, blockmuseum.northwestern.edu, free.