Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Dorit Azoulay

Published on March 10, 2011

  • Museum: The Brooklyn Museum

  • Visit Date: February, 2011

  • Description:

    “Unbranded: Reflections in Black by Corporate America,” is an exhibit by Hank Williams Thomas, appropriating print ads from 1968-today. The ads featured Black subjects and were targeted at a Black audience, taken from magazines like Jet and Essence and stripped of text and logos. According to the wall text of the photo exhibit, “Thomas seeks to reveal visual ad strategies that are based on cultural stereotypes about life. Through his method of ‘unbranding,’ the artist exposes how commodity culture’s generalizations about race, gender and ethnicity have come to seem almost natural to consumers.” The artist gave each photo a new caption, which the museum placed on a large white tile at the end of each wall, bringing new meaning to the ads when juxtaposed with the unbranded scenario. Some were confusing; others hilarious, and still others meant to give pause.

    Though I enjoyed looking at the ads and being able to recognize some of the more recent ones, I feel the exhibition design elements could have been much better. The exhibit is in a large white room on the 5th floor, which the elevator doors open onto—this is great in terms of getting people to stop and look at the exhibit, however once out of the elevators it seems to be just a large room with photos. The large text panel explaining the exhibit is at the end of the far left wall, and there is no text under any of the stripped ads. All of the new captions are on the same board at the lower end each wall, and all placed on the same panel. The panel of captions is organized by “Top” “Middle”/ “Row 2” etc, with all of the titles separated by semicolons, so one has to read a caption and walk to find the photo in order to relate the two. Perhaps the museum or artist intended for the photos and panels to be set up this way, so the audience would view the unbranded ads as a photographic critique on race, gender or big corporations, without needing textual connotations.

Latest Comments (1)

Advertising images in art museums are still provocative

by Justine Roberts - March 18, 2011

I haven’t seen this exhibit but I am intrigued. Years ago I worked on an exhibit about public health for Exploration Place in Wichita KS, and I curated a set of historic ads related to health – More Doctors recommend Camels than any other cigarette e.g.. The point was to encourage reflection on today’s attitudes toward health and wellness behaviors. The temporal distance was a way to safely, humorously (and obliquely) point to contemporary issues.

In the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum the absolute lack of context you describe – white walls, minimal curatorial text, images themselves stripped of context – seems to make a similar point that time and place aren’t the issue. There is almost a challenge here about whether the images, and ideas associated with them, persist or whether we can place them squarely in the past. But the critique seems layered as these are advertising images in a fine art setting, and a specific set of images that have been underrepresented in art museums more generally.

None of that is to say that it works. But it is provocative and it gets me thinking.

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