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 Post subject: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 6:35 am 
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I just came across a reference to Hank Willis Thomas' 2010-11 photographic exhibition titled "Unbranded". He took a series of advertisements featuring black Americans, removed all the branding and words, and let the images "speak for themselves".

I'm linking to this particular article about the exhibition because it was the only one I could find online with decent sized images of the original exhibition artwork, though I'm not sure all the images are represented.

I was intrigued because the exhibition seems to have been (and still is, I guess) an exploration of how the image of black Americans has been affected by advertising, and vice versa. The article explores the innate racism exposed by the exhibition - and, indeed, quite a few of the images rely on either overt or subtle racism, and reinforce common racist perceptions. Some are entirely repellent. (There's some sexism in there, too.)

However, some of these images don't seem at all racist to me; some are just beautiful images. Some happen to feature blacks, some rely on an innate, quiet beauty which relies on the subject being black. I'm thinking of the family shot, man, woman and child. It's a beautiful image in which I can see no racist overtones. Same with the portrait of the very muscular man wearing the crucifix necklace; I can't see why or how this can be deconstructed as racist.

This could be because I simply don't understand the nuance of American culture, or maybe it's because I have a hidden racist worm (I really, really hope not!), or maybe it's because some of these images simply cannot be deconstructed to show a malevolent core and they're just included as some kind of red hearring or non sequitur.

What do you think?

http://dismagazine.com/disillusioned/46 ... nding-usa/

By the way, I didn't know where to put this thread, so I put it here. It's likely to sink like a stone, so I don't think there's any benefit in thinking too hard about where to move it, but up to the admins.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 12:47 pm 
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I think the text of the article expands on the question somewhat: the specific angle the artist seems to be interested in portraying is the commodification of African-American bodies, and of "blackness" as a cultural concept, with echoes of the time when African-Americans were, in fact, legally fungible commodities.


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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 1:32 pm 
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And do you personally find all the photos fit that idea?

Am I dense in simply finding some of these photos inoffensive, possibly even beautiful?

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 1:40 pm 
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To me, most of them look like nice, innocuous photos of people who happen to have dark skin.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 1:51 pm 
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I moved this thread from Bag End to Lasto, but left a shadow.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:06 pm 
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I think it's possible for an image to be both aesthetically pleasing, even moving, and yet tainted by association and context. These were all advertising images, remember, not merely photographs taken for aesthetic or artistic reasons. There's a built-in commercial angle for all of them.


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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 4:44 pm 
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The one that bothered me the most was the Nike brand on the man's bald head. If it had just been shaven into his hair, that would have been okay, but an actual brand (however it was created...no doubt photoshopped!) that REALLY disgusted me.

The picture of the white hand and the black hand intertwined, as well as the pictures of women's legs with different shades of skin were, IMO, very beautiful.

The two basketball players fighting to get a ball through the noose had me scratching my head. What was that? Slavery to a sport? To winning? Some men will sacrifice EVERYTHING to win...take drugs that can cause them health problems, play with injuries that eventually force them to leave sports, etc. Bobby Orr has now had both knees replaced, after struggling with crippling pain throughout most of his hockey career, and his retirement. Is that what that photo is about?

The food photo...is there something racist about Sloppy Joes? I don't know..another one that had me going 'HUH?'

And the muscular guy with the white stuff on his upper lip...is that a 'Got Milk' ad? Hmmm...that photo could also pass as soft porn. Not the sort of ad you'd expect for milk, but maybe it was advertising something else.

The guy about to dig into a stack of pancakes while wearing the bonnet definitely had racist overtones... Aunt Jemima, and all that. I found it dumb and mildly offensive.

Watermelon and an ice cream scoop? What's up with that? I know many ads from the past showed stereotypical Blacks with big white grins, about to bite into a piece of watermelon, but what could possibly be racist about that photo? I guess it's just too subtle for me... :?

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 8:49 pm 
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I looked through the images quickly, without reading any text. I didn't find them either racist or objectionable. Some were kind of cheesy.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Tue Jul 28, 2015 9:40 pm 
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I think the reporter who took the interview concentrated too much on the “clear-cut racist and sexist stereotyping” in her questions. In his answers, Mr. Thomas perfectly makes clear that the series is not just about that (even though racism plays an important role).

The assessment of art (especially modern art) always depends on the viewer and what said person brings to the picture (pun intended). As a Central European I likely reflect on these works differently compared to an American (the same could be said about race, sex, education, religion, etc.). And even though I am not American, I can still see certain “racial stereotypes” in these pictures. The extremely cheesy picture of the naked family for example can be interpreted as an idealized version of an ante-slavery past, where the Afro-American customers’ ancestors lived free in their homeland as noble savages.

I am not an artist myself, nor have I studied art history (my father organizes a large art fair for contemporary art though, so I know a little bit). When it comes to photos, I try to differentiate between pictures that are interesting without a lot of context, pictures that are interesting with a lot of context, and pictures that are just uninteresting.

In my mind, the only memorable picture (although one also needs to know the context here) presented in that article, is the Branded Head (if one's generous, the Watermelon and the Family Dinner pictures are also somewhat interesting).

Oh, and the muscular man with the milk moustache is Kim Jong Un’s best buddy Dennis Rodman. :D


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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Wed Jul 29, 2015 2:01 am 
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Pointing out that these are ad photos, not art photos. The aim of the photos was to sell something, not to reflect truth.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Wed Jul 29, 2015 1:56 pm 
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On a side note, the scariest part for me personally was how many of the pictures I actually remember seeing as ads...


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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Thu Jul 30, 2015 10:24 pm 
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It's a bit confusing, but there are pictures from three different photograph essays by Hank Willis Thomas in that link in the first post.

You can see this in the fine print below the photos.

Most of them are from "Unbranded", which are real ads with the logos removed.

The nike swoosh on the head is from "Branded", in which Thomas himself placed the logo on the body.

The first picture and a later one with the noose are from "Strange Fruit". To me that first picture with the cotton bowl player and the cotton picker was the most interesting, given the "sharecropper mentality" of the NCAA, in which very little of the millions of dollars made in the college game makes it way to players.

I don't really understand the watermelon one since there aren't any people in it.


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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Thu Jul 30, 2015 10:54 pm 
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Quote:
The nike swoosh on the head is from "Branded", in which Thomas himself placed the logo on the body.



Is it wrong of me to think that including that in that article is intentionally deceitful?

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Fri Jul 31, 2015 1:26 am 
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Faramond, thank you for pointing that out! I was so focused on finding an article that included pictures that I didn't pay attention to the fine print. That clarifies for me the inclusion of the branded head and the noose picture, both of which repelled me.

I find the photo of the interwoven hands very interesting. On first sight, I really like the photo; on reflection I note that the photographer/advertiser used the hands of a black male and a white female - not the other way around. I guess you could say it's a 50-50 choice (though now advertising could as easily use two overtly male hands or two overtly female hands without raising too much ire), but still - they came down on the side of black male and white female.

There are a whole bunch of racist stereotypes reflected in this, but the one at the base of this is that black men lust after white women/white men don't choose black women (and there are status overtones here too: the man chooses the woman because men have more power).

I'm not suggesting that this was a conscious decision, but it was a decision. It's also possible that the modeling agency just picked their favourite hand models. *shrug*.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Fri Jul 31, 2015 2:22 am 
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The interwoven hands is actually the poster for the Spike Lee movie Jungle Fever.

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 Post subject: Re: Unbranded
PostPosted: Fri Jul 31, 2015 2:47 am 
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Ha! Well, context is everything.

I think most of the import of these photos goes over my head because I can't place them within the cultural context (and I haven't seen that Spike Lee film).

A photo does lend itself to all kinds of speculation. I remember auditioning for a drama course and we each had to create a 5 minute monologue that brought to life the person in a photo. There were a limited number of photos, so several people chose the same one - and of course each monologue interpreted the person pictured in an entirely different way.

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