Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas: Two Generations of Photographers

USFCAM will feature works from prominent artists and mother-son duo Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas in its fall exhibition, A Family Affair. Although generations apart, both Willis and Thomas have achieved acclaim for their individual work. At the center of their art is the concern for African American identity and image.

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Deborah Willis. Hank Pending, 2008. digital c-print, 12-1/4 x 40-3/4 inches. Courtesy of the artist

Willis has been named one of the “100 Most Important People in Photography” by the American Photography magazine. She is renowned for her contributions to African American photography, as well as her work in the recovery of its legacy and history. A photographer, writer, producer and historian, she is currently the chair of the Department of Photography & Imagery at the Tisch School of Arts at New York University. Willis’s photographs are centered around the unsung achievements of the African American community, as well as power and positivity within African American identity.

Also critically acclaimed, Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist and photographer interested in the question of false perceptions surrounding race. Like those of his mother, Thomas’s works concern themselves with themes of identity and history with special focus on the African American image. He has done work on both racial identity and gender identity—he exposes both as performances construed by society, not fact. He frequently includes corporate icons, such as advertisements and brands, into his work in order to call out how these icons affect the public’s perception of different communities. He considers mass media, stereotypes and advertisements as perpetrators in reinforcing prejudices that permeate everyday mentality.

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Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas. Sometimes I See Myself In You, 2008. digital c-print, 25-1/4 x 54-1/4 inches. Courtesy of the artists and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

One of the digital prints Thomas and Willis created together is Sometimes I See Myself In You (2008). The piece has a completely black background with three faces placed horizontally across it. The face on the left is Thomas’s while the one on the far right belongs to Willis. At the center is a composite image of their faces: Willis makes up one side of the face, on the left near Thomas, and Thomas makes up the other side, on the right near Willis. Interestingly, the two faces blend seamlessly together, to the point where it takes a careful look to tell that the center image has been manipulated. All three faces stare directly at the viewer, displaying a vitality in their eyes that is counterbalanced by the flat expression of their mouths.

The theme of family and kinship comes through the measured spacing of the piece—mother and son occupy equal space in the spotlight and share the center together. On a larger level, the combined image of Willis and Thomas shows that a person’s identity is shaped by both past and future generations. It is in this way that, despite being separate people, two individuals can be part of each other.

Sometimes I See Myself in You will be displayed alongside four other selected pieces from Thomas and Willis in A Family Affair, which opens on August 24 and runs through December 12. The exhibit will also showcase works by LaToya Ruby Frazier, Renee Cox, Jacolby Satterwhite, Kalup Linzy and Corine Vermeulen.

Kylene Harrington
English Undergraduate
USFCAM Intern Writer

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