Hank Willis Thomas Has More to Say

Dear Liza,

The next set of galleries in the “All Things Being Equal” exhibit at PAM hit much closer to home for me. Called “Unbranded, a Century of White Women,” it used magazine advertisements to look at how stereotypes of white women had been used to sell products, but also, how the stereotypes themselves have been cemented in society so firmly that we see them as fact.

Mother and daughter baking, selling baking soda and gender roles

Since each other these images is THE picture that a company chose to sell its product, you have to ask… why this one? Mr. Thomas proposes that the men creating the ads wanted women to see themselves only as mothers, bakers and cleaners, and that these were noble, life-fulfilling roles. This kept them safely cloistered at home and let the men run things.

Making a new generation of housewives…

But it got even darker.

This ad featuring half a young woman’s unwrinkled face and half with wrinkles due to sun damage, is supposedly selling sunscreen. I remember when it was in one of my mother’s magazines, and she talked about how important it was to wear a hat and use sunscreen, because “no one wants to look like that.”

What she didn’t talk about, was that old age, for women in particular, was to be postponed at all costs. And she didn’t talk about it because it was assumed. Women were worthy while they were young and pretty.

Getting older….be avoided at all costs?

Other ads showed women in “a man’s world”, but always in a way that threw a bone to males and their opinions as being ‘right’.

For example, this politically active, joyous woman is celebrating at a political convention…. while wearing a pointy bra. “Yes, you can vote and stuff,” it seems to say. “But you still have to wear this ridiculous underwear to be a real woman.”

Underwear as …..power?

This ad shows two fellows mountain climbing with a woman, who is coming up from behind and slowing them down. “See?” The ad says, without words. “If you leave the kitchen and insist on being out in the men‘s world, you just look silly and ruin it for everyone.”

These images were created by companies to sell products, but were often seen by people as “showing the way things were.” Women should teach their daughters (no boys were used in any of these campaigns) to clean and bake. Women are prettier when younger. Women do look silly when they step into the political arena. See? It’s right there in the magazine.

So, when you watch TV or read online or in a magazine, look at what’s being shown, and ask yourself, “What are they really selling?”


Grandma Judy

Hank Willis Thomas at PAM

Dear Liza,

I was feeling the need of some inspiration yesterday, so I went downtown to the Portland Art Museum, called PAM for short.

Totally empty courtyard

The first thing I noticed was that the courtyard between the two buildings has been cleared of all the sculpture that usually stands there, because this outdoor area will soon be indoors. A glass gallery will be built to connect the new and the old buildings at ground level, and for a year or so, this will be a loud dusty construction sight. I look forward to the new space.

Inside the museum, I found swarms of high school students there for the same reason I was: To see the new exhibit, called “All Things Being Equal”, which looks at race (which means the color of your skin) and gender (which means if you are a boy or a girl), and makes you think about how these things, as well as money and power, effect how we move about in the world.

The first piece, in the tallest gallery, is called 14, 719. It is 16 long banners, exactly the color of the blue field on the flag, with one star for every man, woman and child killed by gun violence in 2018. Hank Willis Thomas created it after his mentor was killed. An installation in the stairwell gave an idea of the sweep of grief all these killings had, showing the faces of the people directly affected by just this one murder.

The next part of the exhibit discussed, by the works shown, how college and professional athletes, particularly African American men, are used to generate money for the white-owned colleges and business franchises they play for.

Soccer player chained to his ball…

The NCAA and NFL systems are depicted as a new form of slavery, and the pieces were very moving.

Comparative forms of slavery…

The largest piece in this gallery was a satire of Picasso’s masterwork Guernica, also called Guernica (which is confusing). It is a textile piece about twenty feet long and six feet high, replicating the famous painting in football jerseys. It leads to conversations about power and death and those who can inflict it with impunity.

Guernica, 2016

The next gallery showed photographs from old magazine advertisements featuring African American people. The words had been removed so you weren’t told what was being sold, although I remember some of these ads and can recognize a McDonald’s ad when I see one.

McDonald’s ad from the 1970s, showing black people what success looked like.

But what was interesting to me was the question, “What is actually being sold in this image? Is it just pants, or soap, or fast food? Or is it an idea of who we are and what we aspire to? And what is the value of what we aspire to?”

There were many other galleries, which I will tell you about tomorrow. My brain was so full, it will take a few days to unpack!

Interesting alteration of the world..


Grandma Judy