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“Hank Willis Thomas: Unbranded,” an exhibit that opened at Northwestern University’s Block Museum of Art on April 14, looks at how advertising images reproduce and reinforce American ideals of race and femininity.
Conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas has built his career investigating issues of American consumer culture, particularly as it relates to African American subjects. The exhibit includes selections from two related bodies of Mr. Thomas’ work that draw on American print advertising from the past century. In selected works from the two series, “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America” and “Unbranded: A Century of White Women,” Mr. Thomas digitally removes product names and slogans from historical and contemporary advertisements. By un-branding them, he asks viewers to confront the impact of images on the popular imagination. He questions how ads reflect society’s hopes and dreams at a moment in time, as well as how they reveal popular ideas about race and gender.
In a 2015 interview on National Public Radio, Mr. Thomas said, “When you see the image naked, or unbranded, you start to really ask questions. That’s why we can almost never tell what it’s actually an ad for, because ads really aren’t about products. It’s about what myths and generalizations we can attach, and the repetition of imagery of a certain type.”
“Unbranded” continues through Aug. 5 in the main gallery of the Block Museum, 40 Arts Circle Drive.