Getting in the spirit of Election Day, the NCMA Contemporaries threw a party in October to vote on—and celebrate—their latest group-funded purchase of art for the Museum. After months of Q&A sessions, debates, and deliberations, the young professionals group narrowed down the options to two works, with the help of our Curatorial Department. A photograph by Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl (2011), was the grand winner!
If Hank Willis Thomas is a familiar name for you, perhaps you remember him from our 2011 exhibition 30 Americans, which featured a roster of amazing African American contemporary artists. Thomas is a photographer whose primary interest involves linking race or racially charged images with advertising and popular culture. His correlations lead us, as viewers, to consider the present, as well as the past, in a new and sometimes shocking light. “Ultimately, my goal is to subvert the common perception of ‘black history’ as somehow separate from American history,” Thomas has said.
The Cotton Bowl presents a mirrored representation of a football player and a cotton picker—here, a post-slavery sharecropper. Nearly identical in pose and gaze, both men display the physical prowess necessary to perform their duties in agriculture and sports stardom. Yet as they are aligned, they face one other across their own invisible line of scrimmage, becoming tangible symbols of the struggle between current events and historical situations that some African Americans feel. Thomas often comments on African Americans in sports and the glory they can receive there, and the staggering economic differences between sports stars and their nonathlete peers.
What questions does The Cotton Bowl inspire about the economic positions of these characters? Is the football player in a better position than his sharecropping ancestor? And how does the play on words in the title—referring both to the classic college football bowl game and the protective covering for raw cotton before it is harvested—tie this image together?
Thomas creates images that are simultaneously accessible and symbolically loaded—and this one will bring lots of conversation and discussion to our galleries when it becomes part of the permanent collection. This is the first work by Thomas that the NCMA has acquired, and the Museum community thanks our Contemporaries for a great choice.
Image: Hank Willis Thomas, The Cotton Bowl, 2011, digital chromogenic print, 65 × 96 in., © 2012 Hank Willis Thomas
―Jennifer Dasal is associate curator of contemporary art at the NCMA.