Burning a hole in how cigarette ads used blacks

Tucked into a corner of the Savannah College of Art and Design Atlanta library, on the fourth floor of the Peachtree Street campus, the Trois Gallery is a small space that often features a fascinating roster of contemporary art. The current show at Trois features Hank Willis Thomas, an exceptionally well-regarded African-American artist with a wry sense of humor and a penchant for turning racial stereotypes on their heads, mostly by putting advertising culture under a microscope to reveal its absurdities.

Hank Willis Thomas’ primary focus in the Trois Gallery exhibition “Believe It” is the kind of 1970s-era cigarette ads featuring stylish black women and hyper-confident black men that appeared in magazines such as Ebony. The original advertisements that Thomas references in his art are displayed in glass cases in the space. They present an idea of empowered, strong, virile black men and women whose powers only seem to be enhanced by pulling on a Virginia Slim or a Kool. The ads sell an idea of style and sophistication epitomized by the Virginia Slims mantra, “You’ve come a long way, baby” — a phrase that sells its product using an aura of feminist empowerment.

In Thomas’ works inspired by those ads, he removes all traces of the cigarettes and text in the original ads, leaving behind images of the smartly dressed models. Black men and women in popular culture have rarely possessed such enviable moxie, grace and cool as they do here, Thomas hints. Thomas suggests in these repurposed ads how African-Americans are only endowed with those glamorous qualities by a pop culture much more likely to vilify them in order to sell an addictive habit.

One response to Thomas’ exhibition may not be one he intended: a sense of something close to nostalgia or delight at the vanished advertising standard of ubiquitous cigarette promotions, where smoking was synonymous with sex appeal and savoir-faire. The sunglasses, so-retro-it’s-now-stylish clothing and aura of cool expressed by these black male and female models plays into the same vision of black hipness that filmmaker Quentin Tarantino has made a critical feature of many of his movies, from “Pulp Fiction” to “Jackie Brown.”

In addition to Thomas’ revamped cigarette ads, “Believe It” includes a series of witty lenticular pieces — a printing method that gives the impression that the image changes or moves when viewed from different angles — whose black phrases printed on a white background convey the complexities of race. Depending upon where you stand, the phrase “Le Blanc Imite Le Noir” becomes “Le Noir Imite Le Blanc.” In another work, “It’s Not You, It’s Me,” shifts — when seen from another angle — to “It’s Not Me, It’s You.” These works more succinctly convey both the tension and desire for assimilation in American race relations. Another lenticular piece simply repeats the word “Money,” though in this case it doesn’t matter where you stand: The word money is unchanging, a wry testament to an American and Madison Avenue fixation.

“Believe It” is a whiskey shot of a show — quick and occasionally potent. But it doesn’t fully live up to Thomas’ usual sublime sense of humor and more explicit send-ups of advertising culture. Part of the show’s dilemma may be the collision of work specifically focused on cigarette advertising and the lenticular pieces whose wordplay more generally speaks to a culture of advertising, money worship and self-help.

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