Friday, April 30, 2010


Hank Willis Thomas is a button-pusher.  At this year's Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, he gets the unassuming corner of Front St. and Spadina Avenue as an outlet for his Fair Warning/Rebranded/Remember Me exhibit.  At first glance it might appear an odd venue, however upon thinking about it further, there really is reason behind the mystery.  

At the north-east corner of this intersection is a parking lot with a slew of billboards and kiosks which subtly target passersby coming off the highway into the downtown core, in addition to much streetcar traffic to and from the city.  Thomas is an artist who takes vintage photographs of minorities, primarily Black People, whether it be from cigarette advertisements or even postcards.  He challenges us to think about how they have been portrayed in the past, having us revisit where these photos stand in today's social framework.  He takes photos that served a purpose in the past and recycles them to new meanings.

One billboard boldly shows plantation/field workers side by side (see above), reminding us, "it didn't jest grow by itself".  In other pieces (see right), he arranges photographs of lithe Black female models in ridiculously glam outfits of yesteryear, modeling for cigarette companies.  This today seems like a distant memory with cigarette advertising being frowned upon today.  Even the public couldn't cut poor Kelly Clarkson some slack recently for having learned that her Malaysian tour had been sponsored by a cigarette company!  Times have changed, indeed.

And in what would be one of his more poignant photos, Thomas takes a photo of a Black man holding a rifle with the words "Remember me" written in calligraphy; a reminder of the ongoing fight for social equality shared in the collective Black consciousness.

Again, the subject matter is nothing we haven't all discussed in Social Studies class at some point in our scholastic lives, but Thomas presents it all with innovation and purpose, without grating assertiveness.  His installation will be around from April 27th to May 31st.  Click here to learn more. (Photo credit: Mr. Will-W.)

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