New Portland Art Museum Show Exposes the Manipulative Power of Advertising in the City Where Nike Was Born

New Portland Art Museum Show Exposes the Manipulative Power of Advertising in the City Where Nike Was Born

The artist hopes that Nike adverting executives will make time to visit the exhibition.
By Rachel Corbett for Artnet - 28 

For the artist Hank Willis Thomas, one of the highlights of having his mid-career survey at the Portland Art Museum is that it’s in the same city as the headquarters of Nike.

Thomas has long been influenced, and seemingly troubled, by the effects of the company’s branding, elements of which appear throughout his work. In fact, the show’s promotional banner hanging from the Oregon museum’s facade features Thomas’s 2003 photograph of a black man’s head, branded with the Nike swoosh logo.

Years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee and ignited the sports industry’s intensely politicized new era, Thomas was making work about the plight of college athletes like his cousin Songha Willis, one of the many young men who “spend their whole life trying to get this opportunity, and then there could be an injury, or a life-altering decision about where to go, and the school and everyone’s making money but the players,” Thomas told artnet News.

The sports industry’s exploitation of African American labor is a dynamic that recurs throughout the exhibition. Thomas compares it explicitly to slavery in photographs like those of a sneaker chained to a basketball, or a football player crouching across a yard line from a cotton picker, or a player dunking a basketball into a noose.

Despite the apparent condemnation in much of Thomas’s sports-influenced work, the artist considers himself a fan of Nike’s ads, which are created largely by the Portland-based agency Weiden and Kennedy. “I got to tour their offices and the Nike offices,” he said. “It was really cool.”

Thomas admires the potency of advertising, if not always its ends. “I grew up in what they call the ‘MTV Generation,’ and I realized then that advertising is a completely powerful language, but it’s usually a one-way language,” he said. Companies use it “only to get us to buy something, but there’s not as much use of that language to talk about other issues.”

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