“Absolut Power” is a visual piece of art created by Hank Willis Thomas in 2003. Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist born in New York in 1976 who has received multiple degrees in art and photography such as an MFA/MA in Photography and Visual Criticism from the California College of Arts. His works have been exhibited in the United States and abroad including the International Center of Photography and in various public collections. Some of his other projects include Question Bridge (2013), “Unbranded”
(2007), and “Black Power” (2006). Each of his projects focuses on the identity and history of African Americans in modern culture. One of his earliest projects, “Absolut Power,” features black silhouettes packed together tightly to create a shape of a bottle along with a bolded “Absolut Power” below the image. The piece was released in a time of continuous racial injustice when transracial couples were criticized, and when Halle Berry, the first and only black women, awarded an Academy Award for Best Actress. “Absolut Power” was created by Hank Willis Thomas to display the single collective identity of the African American race through creating a cultural hybrid of the past and the present.
Historical and Cultural Context
“Absolut Power” represents Thomas’s focus on the loss of African American’s individuality through a monotone image based on the historic Brookes slave ship diagram and the modern marketing campaign for Absolut Vodka. Starting with the past, the influence of the Brookes Slave Ship diagram is visible in the image through the similar organization of partitions and the drawings of the tiny black silhouettes. The Brookes is “probably the most recognizable image related to the
slave trade and its abolition” due to its popularity of the abolition movement showcasing the cruel nature of the slave trade (Glickman). While Thomas probably included the Brookes because of its reconcilability of the slave trade, it also exhibits the single collective identity of the 487 people on the boat as slaves, an identity created by the white population. Thomas’s organizes his piece following the Brookes through the similar four partitions in the bottle that each pushes their capacity limits and the analogous “storeroom” at the bottom of the bottle.
Meanwhile, Thomas connects the historical context to the current Absolut advertisements through the bottle shape and same bolded “Absolut” text at the bottom of the image instead of “absolute.” The Absolut Company is a leading distiller of alcoholic drinks and is known for their iconic brand, Absolut Vodka, the third most popular brand of spirits (Miskelly). During the 1990’s Absolut Vodka’s marketing campaign “had roaring success, which garnered double-digit percentage gains” in their market share. Such success led to the bottle design of Absolut Vodka is one of the most recognizable product features. Richard Lewis, the worldwide account representative for V&S Vin & Sprit AB, which produces Absolut, stated “the hero is the bottle. The bottle is the star.” Each of their advertisements showcased the bottle’s design front and center but decorated with different themes with the same template “Absolut…” at the bottom of each advertisement. Thomas takes advantage of this ionic bottle to connect the past to the present in order to display the afterlives of slavery.
When the image was released, race relations were and are still a prevalent issue in today’s modern context due to discrimination and racial inequality. Even after the abolishment of slavery and integration policies, relations are not mending as time continues. In fact, as time continues studies have concluded that affiliations were distancing. In 2016, 32% of national adults reported that relations between white and blacks were somewhat bad and 14% said very bad compared to 24 % and 6% representatively in 2003 (Gallup). Thomas has admitted that his work is about “starting conversations rather than concluding them” (Jonze). Thomas, living as a black man, recognized these racial inequalities and started a dialog through his art such as “Absolut Power” and his “Unbranded Series” about racism. In the following years, the ideas of starting these dialogs early on mark the origins of more profound questions being asked and more significant movements being acknowledged and supported.
Themes and Style
“Absolut Power” focuses on the modern times regarding racism. The image Thomas created was not to state that the Absolut Company is racist, but rather to synthesize the historic Brookes with the present Absolut Vodka to connect racism to a marketing campaign. He goes into detail describing his purpose for creating the piece as “I thought about this amazing Absolut campaign that I always loved and thought about the construction of a quote, unquote, ‘black identity.’ … [I]f someone chose to kidnap these people, package them into ships, send them halfway across the world, and tell them they’re all the same– to me, that’s absolute power, the fact that this whole notion of race– and I think [that] racism was actually [a] successful advertising campaign.” Thomas describes racism as a successful advertising campaign because they share a similar process and payoff. Absolut Vodka is used to develop his claim by Thomas parodying a real successful marketing campaign. A campaign that led to Absolut Vodka being the third most popular brand of spirts because people recognized it from the commercials.
Like an advertising campaign that influences people’s thoughts and opinions, racism hasn’t changed due to its rigid prevalence in society back when slavery was in effect. Thomas’s likes to say that “the crazy thing about blackness is that black people didn’t create it—that Europeans with a commercial interest in dehumanizing us created black people” (Goldstein). Centuries ago, there were no black people; there were just people. Labeling people of color was a commercial interest of slavery in order to develop its “industry.” Its “industry” was developed through dehumanization which led to the loss of individuality and created a larger group of stereotypes that Thomas defines as “black identity.” This notion of domineering an entire race through false constructs to create the “black identity” is what Thomas calls absolute power. This fabricated black identity has resulted in people of color trying to figure out who they are centuries later.
Even though slavery was abolished in 1865, the effects regarding racial inequality and discrimination are still present 200 years after. Saidiya Hartman termed this enduring presence as the “afterlife of slavery” in her book Lose Your Mother. Her claim couples with Thomas’s by revolving around the presence of a “black identity” living on through society and its citizens. One of the greatest examples of this claim is about the media. Thomas has stated before that marketing is “under-appreciated for its real power.” The population is exposed to repeated claims of racism through witnessing discrimination or racial inequality on daily media. Recently in 2017, the media has shared the protests in Charlottesville of white supremacists. The media’s under-appreciated power comes from its massive outreach and popularization of ideologies. Every time the press shares such stories regarding racism, it continues to share that ideology even if it’s trying to “suppress” it through disapproval. Thomas wanted to start a conversation about the notion of racism through racial inequality and discrimination. He realized that there are still problems in the afterlives of slavery because an entire race is trying to rebuild individuality, with history still displaying their dehumanized past.
With regards to the critical conversation about the art piece, most of the arguments and claims come from the history of the influences of the composition. Thomas is quoted in Celeste-Marie Bernier’s report in her relation between Thomas’s piece and Betye Saar’s work. Celeste-Marie Bernier focuses on the lasting effect of the Brookes slave ship diagram. She claims that Thomas superimposing the Brookes on to vodka bottle represents “extent to which white racist marketing strategies remain indebted to slavery’s legacies in ongoing systems of racist oppression, class injustices, alcohol abuse, and legislative discrimination no less than physical and psychological incarceration that all work to perpetuate … disempowerment” (Celeste-Marie Bernier). She discusses another early influence in Thomas’s piece Betye Saar who started using the Brookes diagram in her art. Interesting she describes the Brookes like an imprint and as such stating “is on all of us. It is there forever!” (Saar). Such a claim continues the discussion of Thomas connecting the past to the present through this ionic imprint inside of us.
Meanwhile, David Walker focuses on Thomas’s art regarding advertising’s lies and power. Walker starts off detailing Thomas’s “Branded” series that raises the question
about how advertisers influence their audience with images. Then transitions the topic about how African-Americans are manipulated similarly. Such an example is true for “Absolut Power.” African-Americans are trapped in this single collective identity created and manipulated by other races and are unable to escape from the stereotypes. Walker breaks down in how the language and power of advertising image encourage people and creates a claim that “many of the works in the “Branded” series connect consumerism and our obsession with brands (like Absolut and MasterCard) to our financial and spiritual enslavement” (Walker). Slavery in the “Absolut Power” is a literal image of the population’s enslavement to brands. Instead of focusing on the theme of slavery David Walker instead discusses how advertising creates slavery. This other side of the story develops and interesting claim regarding Thomas’s work. Although discrimination is a common theme in Thomas’s work, so is advertising. And as such, Thomas’s claims regarding racism is as important as advertisings subliminal messages that influence the population’s life on a different level. Thomas started to think more critically about his intention behind his work and its potency which led him to become interested in the power of advertising due to its significant effects.
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