It is hard to pick which of the Hank Willis Thomas pieces I liked the most in 30 Americans, but I thought Priceless covered enough of his style to work for the whole. Like most of his art, this incorporates advertising heavily, along with the larger theme of abuse and loss. I can particularly see the personal sense of loss when this piece is coupled with the short interview shown in the City Block area next to the exhibition. In this three-minute interview, Thomas recalls that his work was slightly more lighthearted until the murder of his cousin. After that his work became more realist and less light but still often used an element of entertainment.
The piece itself is a photo of a large black family, probably an extended family, in their finest clothing, mourning what is presumed to be a murdered youth. In and around the photo are words written in yellow that play on the MasterCard commercials, with phrases like “Pistol: $80,” “Bullet: 10 cents,” “Casket: $6,000,” “Burying Your Son: Priceless.” This is a heartbreaking thought. Since those MasterCard commercials were usually so warmhearted and thoughtful, to see them turned by such a horrible event strikes me hard.
I wonder how much less effective the photo might have been if Thomas had not used the commercial element, because advertising is such a strong way to enter our consciousness, traveling down roads of thought like a river travels down a gulch. The piece is really powerful and affected me deeply the first time I saw it. Death always seems to have that effect on people. And so it should.
This post is one of a series on staff perspectives of 30 Americans. Nathan Johnson is a security guard at the NCMA.