A Century of White Women
Sex sells.But apparently so do images of chains, shackles and straitjackets.A new exhibition at the Weatherspoon Art Museum looks at race and gender in the advertising business, and the sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious, often bizarre ways corporate America has marketed itself to women over the past 100 years.“Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915- 2015” features 38 prints by photographer Hank Willis Thomas. The exhibition will run until Dec. 11, and Thomas will deliver a talk at the museum Sept. 15 as part of the 17DAYS Arts & Culture Festival.Thomas, who is black, has removed the text and logos from old print ads featuring and targeted toward white women, revealing the ways racial and gender politics have often intersected.“It becomes a chronology that the artist describes as ‘one step forward, two steps back,’” Weatherspoon curator Emily Stamey said. “You see images that enforce certain assumptions about women, then you see breaks with those assumptions–progressive steps forward–and then you see those assumptions from years previous repeat again.”Thomas, 40, hails from Plainfield, New Jersey, and lives in New York. A graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he has shown at the Guggenheim Museum, the National Gallery of Art and the Nasher Museum of Art in Durham, among other institutions.“He’s often thought of as a conceptual photographer,” Stamey said. “But he’s also done public art projects, he’s done sculptures, he’s done paintings–his work is very multimedia, using a lot of different forms.”Earlier this year, Thomas also helped form an artist-led super PAC named For Freedoms, which isn’t supporting a particular party or candidate, but rather promoting works addressing various political issues from gun control to government transparency.His works, Stamey said, often deal with images from the mass media, along with “issues surrounding and constructions of race and identity.”“He’s really looking at the fact that we have to examine the construction of all identities,” she said. “We often define each other in oppositions–you’re black or you’re white, or you’re male or you’re female. Thomas asks us to reconsider that way of thinking, but not in a ‘hit you over the head’ didactic way. He puts these images out there for us, which are already out there in the world, but in a way that allows us to see them differently.”In 2011 Thomas created a project similar to the one being shown at the Weatherspoon, but with ads featuring African- Americans. It included images of intertwined legs, a head with a corporate logo branded into it and O.J. Simpson sporting cowboy boots.The Weatherspoon exhibition is a part of a larger series that includes 100 vintage advertisements–or one for every year beginning in 1915“He gets you really thinking about the images that are in ads, and what they say on their own, apart from the text that was originally paired with them,” Stamey said. “When you see an image paired with a text, the text tells you how to read that image. But if you take those words away, suddenly that image can say a lot more. Maybe we catch or intuit those statements even with the text, but when the text is removed, we can really see that image in a whole new light.”The project includes the image of a woman in a straitjacket looking at a typewriter and screaming. Another picture features a woman addressing a political convention in a bra. And in one image a scantily clad woman swings on a vine.“Some of the things that stand out to me are the number of images where a woman is in a cage, or bound or shackled,” Stamey said. “There are certain tropes, or compositions within images, such as seemingly endless rows of women’s legs, that appear repeatedly.”Stamey said she hopes the exhibition serves as a reminder that “there’s a lot of conversations” still to be had about equality.“I feel this project is really resonant and relevant right now,” she said. “We’re at a moment when we might elect our first female president. At the same time, news stories about sexual abuse of women, pay gaps and other inequities remind us that there is still a long way to go.” !WANNA go?“Unbranded: A Century of White Women, 1915- 2015” by photographer Hank Willis Thomas runs through Dec. 11 at The Weatherspoon Art Museum, corner of Spring Garden and Tate streets, on the campus of UNCG in Greensboro. Hank Willis Thomas will deliver a talk at the museum at 7 p.m., Sept. 15. The talk is free to attend.