“I go back to photography often as a way to make an argument,” the artist Hank Willis Thomas told a full house at the Studio Museum in Harlem Sunday afternoon, flipping through a half-century of advertisements targeted at African Americans. The comments were delivered during a brief presentation in which the photo-conceptualist described “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America 1968–2008,” a project where he removed products and logos from advertisements carried in “Jet” and “Ebony” magazines. His twenty-minute presentation was preceded by a similar introduction by the artist Leslie Hewitt, who works with photography and sculpture, and was followed by a wide-ranging conversation between Hewitt and Willis Thomas.
The program took place on the final day of the museum’s group exhibition “Speaking of People: ‘Ebony,’ ‘Jet’ and Contemporary Art,” in which both artists were included. That show considered the history and impact of the influential African American magazines “Ebony” and “Jet,” both published since midcentury by the Johnson Publishing Company of Chicago. Seated at a table on the stage of the Studio Museum’s basement theatre, the two artists riffed on their respective practices and how they responded to the aesthetic and socio-political backdrop provided by the advertising — and editorial — content of the two magazines.
“In my home space, my grandmother was an avid collector of ‘Ebony’ magazine, and an avid photographer and family archivist,” Hewitt said, noting the intimacy of the visual lexicon from which she borrowed. Both artists were careful to diagnose how advertising — and aesthetically-oriented editorial initiatives like beauty contests and pinups — constructed different forms of black identity.
“We forget it was an oxymoron to say… ‘black and beautiful,'” Willis Thomas said of the significance of black beauty contests, even if they privileged lighter-skinned black women with straight hair, as he later pointed out. In an extended aside, Willis Thomas also explained why he preferred to use the terms “so-called black” and “so-called white,” because of the failure of those terms at a literal level to capture skin tone. “’Black’ is a kind of cultural positioning too,” Hewitt said at one point, noting that black movements sought to dislodge color as the locus of identity, replacing it instead with “a sense of consciousness and clarity.”
In one of the discussion’s later exchanges, the pair spoke about their responsibilities as artists and the way they consider the impact of their work. “Our responsibility as artists is to leave some kind of material trace, if we’re lucky people care about it,” Hewitt said. Willis Thomas agreed, while adding a caveat of his own: “I struggle with the long term value of art, there’s a lot of money in saying what’s important and what stays important, but I hope the people [the public] say what’s important.”
The conversation migrated to the galleries, where an unexpected guest, “Jet” beauty and collector Sherry Bronfman, spoke about her upbringing in Chicago and her role as a “Jet” model (she even pointed out her appearances on the exhibition’s floor-to-ceiling collage of “Jet” beauties). The artists then led a walk-through of the show, concluding at Hewitt’s arresting sculptural installation “Untitled (Where Paths Meet, Turn Away, Then Align Again),” 2012. The work’s three large, rectilinear forms of bent white sheet metal were arrayed before a small lithograph, “Flowers,” 2013, originally a civil rights-era photograph manipulated by the artist beyond recognition. Hewitt spoke of her interest in the “affect of beauty,” describing how her thought dealt with “abstraction in relation to blackness… something we should feel ownership of.”
— Mostafa Heddaya (@mheddaya)
(Photo: Hank Willis Thomas and Leslie Hewitt at the conclusion of their talk and walk-through of “Speaking of People” at the Studio Museum in Harlem, by Mostafa Heddaya)