CONTEMPORARY URBAN PROVOCATEURS: The Art of Hank Willis Thomas & Roberto Visani / Melvin A. Marshall

The contemporary urban art among young African American artists focuses on the issues of African American male identity, as it relates to sexuality, power and spirituality. Hank Willis Thomas and Roberto Visani are two instances among many.

Hank Willis Thomas’ photographic series, Branding & Logos, a part of which is presented in the exhibition Jamaica Flux, examines the commodification of young African American male body imagery and its suggestive meanings. Scarred Chest is a photograph of an African American athletic male torso with nine Nike logos repeatedly chiseled on the muscular chest. The image establishes a connection between the historical significance of the slave and cotton trade industries of centuries past with the contemporary world of seductive advertising campaigns and messages, and sexually implicit imagery as it particularly relates to the African American male physique. Alluding to some African American athletes highly paid for their branded bodies, the image suggests that these highly-paid celebrities seem no more aware than their chattel slave ancestors who were brought to America against their will centuries before. In other words, these athletes are no more enlightened (aside from their wealth) or educated than being mere branded chattel. The image also shows how American society has chosen external identities to define itself and how logo-mania has impacted the American community, in particular, its young African American men. In addition, the image refers to the African tribal tradition of scarification. In this context, making a mark on the body is a rite of passage, which symbolizes their lifelong solidarity. It is a sign of achievement and is an homage and acknowledgement to their slave ancestors who were unwillingly branded as mere property. Thomas’ image critically reveals the potential meaning of today’s corporate branding and logos as contemporary hieroglyphs that is powerfully and ubiquitously circulated in popular American culture – a commodified identity and its political status. The African American male is still seen as possessing more brawn (physical ability) than brains in this society and thus is used as a marketing tool for sports clothes and other athletic paraphernalia.

As he begins to articulate his voice through contemporary photography, it is clear to Thomas that without a rigorous investigation of our history we will never understand the intended and unintended costs of the images that we choose to promote. An uncritical embrace of hyper-capitalism, a growing ignorance of past liberation struggles, and political naiveté increasingly influences our choices and consciousness. The ignorance of their history impacts the ability of the Hip-Hop generation to develop new critiques dealing with the protracted injustices of their fore bearers, injustices which continue today. Therefore, Thomas’ photography is engaging because he eloquently restates the struggles of the past and shows their relevance to the present moment while searching for a higher consciousness and challenges us to create a better paradigm.

The problem of race continues to be a difficult American issue to overcome. In Shooting Stars, Thomas calls attention to the issue of gun violence in the African American community. The image that he has created is of a Michael Jordan-esque image dunking a basketball being chased by a young African American man with a pistol in his hand obviously gunning for the Jordan-esque figure. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Website reports that 94% of black murders were perpetuated by black people, and that blacks were 6 times more likely to be murdered than their white counterparts in the year 2000. Unfortunately for Michael Jordan, this statistic directly hit home. In 1993, Jordan lost his beloved father to a random first-degree robbery and murder at gunpoint. With Shooting Stars, Thomas provokes the viewer to think about the world in which they live and brings some uncomfortable issues and aspects about American life that Americans do not want to deal with or see in themselves. Like many photographers who have dealt with these issues before him, such as Adger Cowans, Dawoud Bey, Lyle Ashton Harris and Anthony Barboza, Thomas also tackles the “great American divide,” and challenges viewers to find new ways to address this issue. He challenges us to ask and contemplate questions like: Are we making progress among the races? Are the job opportunities still more limited for the African American male than other groups of people? Are the job opportunities for African American men primarily geared towards using their brawn over their brains? Are sports and music the only areas in which African American men are allowed to excel? Is attaining the “American Dream” an option for the African American male? Is there a secret American agenda in place to keep the African American male down? Does anybody really care about this anymore?

Like Thomas, Roberto Visani is another young black artist concerned about the hand gun issue and its destructive effects on the African American community. Visani’s talent includes working in oil paint, watercolor, mixed-media assemblages, wood and metal sculpture and objects found in predominantly African American neighborhoods like Harlem, Jamaica, Queens, and his Bedford-Stuyvesant community. He began sculpting guns from found objects after a fellowship to Ghana and says that he “heard how slaves were traded for guns” in Africa. The guns represent a weapon of contemporary urban destruction and a tool of past colonial African domination. He says that it’s about “taking something destructive and using it creatively.” His gun sculptures are very urban in their style and material, combining found objects like used crack cocaine vials, feathers, fabric, and broken afro picks.

For the Jamaica Flux exhibition, Visani has gone in a different direction and has decided to create a make-shift limb grabbing for dollars in a plastic transparent case installed on a pedestal. A wind-blowing machine is built into the pedestal blowing the dollar bills out of the grasp of the skeleton hand. In the installation System, created for a bank and installed next to an ATM machine, Visani looks at American culture’s unresolved need to be rich and famous as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. America’s voracious appetite for “reality” television shows is a prime example. In these “reality” shows we have witnessed people willing to do whatever is necessary to possibly win some money, fame, or notoriety. America’s sense of morals, ethics, loyalty, fair play and a sense of decency have become secondary to the goal of winning a large sum of dinero, for which competitors have endured rats and scorpions crawling over their bodies while enclosed in a glass case, and eating the most live earthworms or dead animal flesh in a fixed period of time. Visani is also commenting on the ability to get ahead of the game as it relates to financial empowerment and sustainability when oil costs $50 per barrel, joblessness is on the rise, contributing to the power of money. His work is about “manipulating the relationship between form, material, idea, and craft” and as a result he develops a broader narrative.

The artwork of Thomas and Visani marks a recent development in contemporary African American art that focuses on urban issues, unraveling some of the complexities associated with growing up as a black man in contemporary American society. Christopher Neal, Kehinde Wiley, Sol Sax, and Omar Thomson are other artists working in this vein. Neal has referenced the masculine nature of bull fighting as a metaphor for the black man. Like the bull, the black man’s physical (athletic) strength, swiftness, and assumed sexual prowess inspires awe. Neal is also known to leave his portraits of black men unfinished to suggest that the black man has yet to achieve a complete, whole status in reaching the “American Dream” and that the black man has yet to be viewed as being a full-fledged contributor to the American landscape. Wiley is more interested in placing young African American men in a portrait context similar to the style used by the Old Venetian Masters like Titian and Tintoretto. Sol Sax considers a connection between contemporary African American culture and the Yoruban traditions of West Africa, asserting that Hip-Hop culture is a new generation of improvisation with many of its themes based on West African traditions. Thompson’s ceramic art has a strong sculptural consideration, most of which is influenced by the dynamics of African art. His innovative use of new materials like water, epoxy resin, metals, hair, wax and bones produce a refreshing approach to working with clay. All of these artists represent de rigueur among African American artists to get Masters Degrees from a top college or university in painting, fine arts or photography, which indicates a shift of American society and the upcoming shape of black identity.

Melvin A. Marshall