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Struggle Kitsch? A Review of Hank Willis Thomas's 'History Doesn't Laugh'

Hank Willis Thomas at Goodman Gallery

By Michael Smith
15 January - 15 February. 0 Comment(s)
Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passbook must Burn!)

Hank Willis Thomas
Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passbook must Burn!), 2014. Bronze and Copper shim Dimensions Variable .

Hank Willis Thomas’s new body of work is undeniably exciting in that it is currently debuting at the Goodman Gallery Johannesburg. Having produced the work for and about SA’s visual history makes it a fairly momentous occasion; it’s certainly very different to viewing a cobbled-together show by a shining star of the international circuit who deigns to Fedex a few pieces to a local gallery. Years of cultural deprivation, even post-liberation, have rendered us used to taking what we could get: and so it is genuinely great that galleries like Goodman and Stevenson (who regularly show fresh bodies of work by Odili Donald Odita) are able to secure tailor-made exhibitions by strong international artists for our local consumption.

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Raise Up

Hank Willis Thomas
Raise Up
285 x 25 x 10cm


And make no bones about it: Thomas is a strong artist. His take on the commodification of the African American male body by the intersecting networks of advertising, film, television and sport is always bang-on. Along with artists like Kehinde Wiley, Thomas is one of the more erudite commentators on contemporary identity politics. Restrained and focused, Thomas’s work is in strong contrast to similar work in the '90s in which there seemed to be a form of aesthetic incontinence (both here and in the States) by artists who made identity-based work. 

What is initially very striking is Thomas’s use of photo-based sculpture, just as the worldwide glut of photo-based painting begins to creak under its own weight. Thomas’s works align themselves more with those of artists like Adrian Ghenie and Luc Tuymans, who frequently use not just a generalised Richter-esque gesture to reference photography, but who rework and restate iconic photographs, choosing to incorporate the original images’ allusions and histories into a fresh process. Thomas has cherry-picked key images from the SA documentary photography lexicon, and made the word flesh – or, at least, the images solid – once again.

Ernest Cole’s silver gelatin photo During routine medical examinations the men are herded through a string of doctors’ offices (1967) is interpreted by Thomas as an installation of diminutive bronzes on a shelf. His take is poignant, as the men are represented only from their necks or chins up; the effect is one of slow immersion, drowning, obliteration.

A work by Eli Weineberg titled Hands and pass burning in protest against the pass laws (1960) is beautifully manifested by Thomas as seven arms cast from life into bronze and copper shim in Die Dompas Moet Brand! (The Passbook Must Burn!); the work is installed rather intimately in a corner of the gallery. The real burnt books and ash on the gallery floor add a viscerality to the work that photography is sometimes criticized as neutralizing.

A Luta Continua

Hank Willis Thomas
A Luta Continua
80 x 320 x 50cm


A photo by Catherine Ross, Arrested demonstrators are driven away from the Supreme Court, Johannesburg, July 22, 1992 becomes A Luta Continua (2014). It is a dominant work in the central volume of the gallery, and a pivotal moment in the show. The work most clearly explores one of the artist’s key formal concerns: starting with side-on images (Ross’s and Cole’s original images have something of the illicit, or at least the hastily-recorded, in their side-on compositions) and flattening them out into wall-based sculptures. Four people’s hands emerge from holes in three panels of mesh, which mimic the incarcerating grid on the sides of large police riot vehicles. Poignantly, four holes between the hands remain empty; do they suggest successful evasion of arrest, or more chillingly, could they evoke apartheid’s multitude of anonymous victims, missing from history and rapidly fading from memory?

Thomas continues the theme of human hands with convex plastic works that are enlargements of anti-apartheid-era lapel pins: We have had enough (2014) sees four hands images in various tones of black and grey uniting in a show of resistance, while An injury to one is an injury to all (2014) reworks COSATU’s famous emblem, emphasizing the gestures of the original image’s Soviet-inspired workers.

As an exercise, ‘History Doesn’t Laugh’ ably revisits the storehouse of South Africa’s hot-button historical images in a way which makes one ask why more local artists resist or avoid similar considerations. But what seems to be missing is a sense of wit, of incisive critique around the way these images operated and are still deployed, most notably by the Okwui Enwezor and Rory Bester-curated blockbuster ‘The Rise and Fall of Apartheid’ (currently on at Museum Africa). Thomas seems to stop just short of illuminating anything new about our cultural legacy, and instead seems to simply reinforce the new hegemony.

An injury to one is an injury to all

Hank Willis Thomas
An injury to one is an injury to all
Fiberglass and aluminum


There is little here to disrupt the reassurance that apartheid’s worst images seem to give to a contemporary audience. While this reassurance probably derives from a very necessary revisiting of trauma in order to accommodate it, one wonders about Thomas’s motives behind reworking these already well-known images.

His stated intention of ‘representing photographic ideas through unconventional materials’ just doesn’t seem to offer enough opportunity for productive reworking, or reveal much to a local audience that it didn’t already know. Somehow I’m just missing the juice of images like Basketball and Chain (2003) (in which a basketball shackles a leaping black athlete), or Scarred Chest (2003)(Nike swooshes accumulate on the chest of a black torso like lashes from a 'cracker’s; whip). And sadly I left the show feeling that Thomas had added little to our visual culture.

The British neo-Conceptualist and all-round agitator, Merlin Carpenter, has frequently dealt with the notion of ‘political kitsch’. In an interview with John Kelsey, the writer mentions Carpenter’s interest in the ‘activist gesture in art… that is at the same time indistinguishable from a kitsch aesthetics’. Perhaps Carpenter needs to jet over here for a bit to do the Lord’s work. 

South Africa’s visual culture, at all levels (curating, producing, writing) frequently seems content to trot out little truisms about the ‘struggle moment’ in a manner that suggests the very power of struggle culture is being diluted into a form of cultural consensus – dare I say, a form of kitsch. The playoff in Johannesburg at the moment between ‘The Rise and Fall…’ and ‘History Doesn’t Laugh’, reveals just how true this is. Our visual culture, and, crucially, the exportable notion of South Africa as a collection of social phenomena, remains shackled to the politically-comfortable ethical dichotomy of apartheid’s good versus evil.

For a people to endlessly replay ‘the moment of struggle’ seems to reveal how thoroughly they wish it wasn’t over. This is what unnerves me about work about the struggle against apartheid, being made in 2013 and 2014. It seems even worse when that work is made by someone who wasn’t a part of that history.