30 Americans Thematic Trail: Art as Social Commentary/Critique

Begin this trail by asking your students: What is critique? Artists who use their work as a way to question what society and culture tell us to believe are thinking critically about how we understand the world and digest information.

Hank Willis Thomas uses advertising and media in his work. Through familiar campaigns (the NBA, MasterCard, and Nike), he ruminates on how popular culture reinforces stereotypes and often takes advantage of the disadvantaged. But the photographs are layered; they are not simply dark jokes but pieces that raise major questions about society and culture. For example, in Branded Head (2003), the head of a faceless African American man is shown with a scar in the shape of the Nike swoosh. Sports can be a way out of an economically disadvantaged reality, but by referencing history, when slaves were branded with their owners’ names, Thomas suggests that sports culture is itself a form of contemporary slavery.

Other artists explore the use of the female body as a symbol in contemporary culture. Xaviera Simmons deconstructs historical connotations of the female body in her One Day and Back Then (Seated) and (Standing) (2007). She refers simultaneously to the Hottentot Venus, an African woman who was displayed as an exotic creature in late nineteenth-century Europe, and to the use of black face makeup in early twentieth-century American theatre. At the same time, the figure’s black coat and Afro hairstyle call to mind the Black Power movement. In juxtaposing these symbols, Simmons asks us to think about the difficult past, and how it can inform the future.

Wangechi Mutu also references the female body in her lush, complex collages, such as Non je ne regrette rien (2007) (its title a reference to French singer Edith Piaf). Though the female body—as an abstract form with characteristics of a snake and of plant life—is hardly recognizable, the strength of the figure is undeniable. And in Mickalene ThomasPortraits of Quanikah (2006), one woman is shown in different wigs, earrings, clothing, and poses, all of which speak to beauty standards while also challenging them.

Discussion Prompts

  • Look closely at one of the photographs by Hank Willis Thomas and, as a group, explore the layers of meaning. What is it saying on the surface? What might the artist want us to think about as we keep looking at the piece?
  • Find a commercial and dissect it: Who is its intended audience? Does it perpetuate a stereotype? How so?