Negroes to be Sold is a contemporary work of art completed in 2009 by Hank Willis Thomas, a conceptual artist who engages with themes related to identity, race, pop culture, and history. My first instinct when looking at this piece was to search for the artist’s description of the work. While Hank Willis Thomas has had a prolific career and much has been written by and about him, I couldn’t find an interview or essay where he speaks about this piece in particular. I then pivoted my search for scholarly write-ups about the object and its potential meanings. I similarly came up empty-handed—no Artsy article, no Wikipedia entry, no description on the RISD Museum website, where the work is housed. I came to a bit of a standstill in my quest to explore the significance of this object. Who knows a work better than the artist? Who can interpret a work better than a trained scholar or critic? Yet, we know, as art historian Caroline Jones argues, artistic intention is but a small part of an artwork’s meaning and that the aesthetics of a piece will remain much longer than its intent (Jones 237). We also know that art professionals and critics are influenced by flawed and oppressive power structures that color the “facts” they employ in their research (Nochlin).
Acknowledging this, how does one go about interpreting an object, in this case Negroes to be Sold? I reached out to some folks at the RISD Museum who work with the object and set up a time to come look at the piece. In the meantime, I began to interpret the work, creating meaning through my own context and understandings, the way many visitors might if they approached this object in a museum with limited background information.
Negroes to be Sold is not currently on display, but it can viewed on the RISD Museum website. Approaching the work online, I took in its formal qualities. I tried to answer the question: What am I looking at?
From the online dimensions, I gathered that the work is printed onto paper the size of a poster. The color of the paper is a yellowy, peach, making the object look antique and faded. The majority of the work consists of text written in an-old fashioned newsprint stye. It starts off, “To Be Sold on board the Ship Bance-Island, on tuesday the 6th of May next, at Ashley-Ferry; a choice cargo of about 250 fine healthy Negroes. . .”. The text goes on to further describe the sale of said 250 enslaved people. Flanking the text, are two small figures rendered in the shadowy, undefined style often used to depict enslaved individuals in historical advertisements. If you aren’t looking closely you might mistake the two figures as slaves. However, the figure on the left is dunking a basketball through a rim. The figure on the right, who looks to be dancing, is perched on his tiptoes mid-performance.
After noting the visual elements of the art piece, many other questions came to mind. Why did the artist make this work? What does this piece mean? Who is this speaking to or about? As I began to make my own interpretations, I became interested in how others might interpret this object. How did our interpretations differ? In what ways were they the same? What might we find to be significant about this work of art? I printed out the image of Negroes to be Sold from the website and took it with me everywhere I went for 36 hours, asking the people around me to share their initial interpretations.
First up on my schedule in the 36 hours was a dinner hosted by my graduate program for prospective students. What better way to welcome new students than to put them on the spot by asking for their thoughts on Negroes to be Sold?
I asked a few people at my dinner table if they’d like to talk to me about a work of art in the RISD Museum collection. We relocated to a quieter spot, and I asked them to interpret this work as if they were first seeing it (as they all were).
Initially the group did not realize the piece was contemporary until someone pointed out the two figures:
After this, their interpretation quickly centered around the juxtaposition of the figures, which read as modern, to the other elements of the object, which read as historic. Some of their thoughts are recorded below:
We further discussed the idea of the binding of past and present. Many in the group mentioned the ways the text was seemingly identical to an actual slave advertisement, giving it an air of historicity. Since the figures, which are not historic symbols, almost blend into the landscape of the ad, it appeared that the past and the present merged. Perhaps by connecting the past and the present in such a subversive manner, the artist might be making a social critique of present-day realities that are influenced by the past.
My initial interpretations of the piece began to shift as I discussed its meanings with the group. By integrating the past and present so seamlessly, what might the work be trying to represent? I thought of anthropologist Michel Trouillot’s explanation of the relativity of time.
“. . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past.” (Trouillot 15).
Following this group’s interpretation, if the past is enslavement and the present entertainment and sports, what of the future? Is Hank Willis Thomas even commenting on the future in this work? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Whatever the case may be, following this line of thinking allowed me to further examine the artist’s use of text and symbols to represent different time periods and modes of understanding.
That evening, a Nor’Easter came through town and snowed us in. Woo! Snowday! But also, limited human interaction. For the following day, I had had big plans to take Negroes to be Sold everywhere, from class, to the mall, to the grocery store, to dinner. I imagined having many different conversations about the piece with strangers. How interesting it would be to hear their interpretations! Instead, I didn’t leave my apartment the entire day. However, I did manage to talk to about the object. Luckily, my boyfriend Austen was snowed in with me and proved to be a wonderful captive audience. Like the group before him, Austen noted the relationship between the contemporary figures and the worn-looking flyer. He centered his interpretation on the two figures, going so far as to label them Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. For him, the juxtaposition of the figures to the content of the text spoke to the commodification of people:
This reading of the work aligned with my own initial interpretations. However, Austen went on to further process the levels of commodification that were occurring, including the selling of culture:
I had not thought about the ways the work could be speaking to this sale of culture and in a sense commodification. What does it mean to be both culturally othered and commodified in one’s own country, as black Americans have routinely been? Following Austen’s points, I began to wonder if Negroes to be Sold was also speaking to cultural appropriation, a possible next step in the evolution of people for sale.
Take Michael Jordan, for example. There are so many potential levels of commodification that can be read through his stardom. First, he becomes the face of the Bulls organization and then the NBA as a whole. Jordan spoke on the Bulls general manager stating,
“I was a piece of meat to him...He felt he could control me, because I had so much value to him. But he didn’t realize that I had value to myself. I was independent, and I understood what I was.” (Gates).
One could make the argument that Jordan, as an individual, was turned into a mega-product outside of the NBA, as he starred in major advertising campaigns from Gatorade to Coca-Cola to Nike. Of course, Jordan was getting paid for these gigs, but how does that compare to the profit people made off of his image? That is a complicated question, but let’s complicate it further, as Austen suggests.
The Air Jordan, the brand of sneaker sold through Nike created for Michael Jordan, was released in 1985 at $65. The shoe would revolutionize the sneaker game, both players and non-players seeking to own them. NBA player LaMarcus Aldridge stated, “Growing up in my neighborhood, [Jordans] were kind of like the Holy Grail. I couldn’t afford them. So just being able to work and save up the money to actually buy them was huge” (Jackson). Jordans became iconic shoe wear in black communities across the US. Today the shoe is internationally popular. What does it mean that Jordans have come to be coveted outside of the black community? Just a quick Google search returns several articles of the appropriation of Jordans and sneaker culture.
There’s a great possibility that the basketball figure in Negroes to be Sold is not Michael Jordan. The dancing character might not even represent Michael Jackson. Was Hank Willis Thomas thinking about cultural appropriation when creating this piece? This is unknown. However, it is clear that the work is referencing the commodification of black American individuals in different time periods, and conversations around that topic coincide with present day issues of cultural exploitation and appropriation.
Wrapping up the 36 hours, post-snow storm, I went to the RISD Museum to look at the work in person at the Minksoff Center For Prints, Drawings, And Photographs. I met with assistant curator Jamie Gabbarelli and chief curator Jan Howard. Jamie brought out Negroes to be Sold, and I noted its size, roughly that of a movie poster. I had seen its dimensions online, but viewing it in person, it appeared to be much bigger than I originally imagined. The color was also different than how it appeared on the web. Instead of a yellowy tone, the work was much more white and crisp. I thought about how the version I printed off, which varied from the work in front of me, had possibly shifted the interpretations of the people I shared it with. However, in this age many museums are looking to make the web an extension of their space, and images are shared and disseminated around the world reaching many more people than ever before.
I learned that Negroes to be Sold was part of a collection of works gifted to the museum by the Brandywine Workshop. Jan shared information on the workshop’s history and prominence in Philadelphia. She also brought out the curatorial file, which had had a good deal of information on Brandywine but nothing specifically pertaining to Negroes to be Sold. Even though there was no scholarly text to dig into, I was in the presence of professionals who work with the piece, so I asked Jan how she would interpret this object without much background context.
Jan began her interpretation by focusing on the references Hank Willis Thomas is making. She mentioned the references that others had suggested previously: the old fashioned text referencing an old slave advertisement and the two contemporary figures representing elements of popular culture. She then brought up another reference point that I hadn’t thought of—the artistic reference. Jan described the artistic influences Hank Willis Thomas was possibly pulling from. She particularly focused on Glenn Ligon and his Runaways series. In this series Ligon asked his friends to create descriptions of him and superimposed these textual descriptions into a poster in the style of the 19th century fugitive slave ad (MoMA Learning).
Jan felt that Runaways, created in 1993, may have served as inspiration for Hank Willis Thomas’ work. In fact, in Jan’s interpretation Negroes to be Sold was an inverse of the pieces from Runaways. While Ligon changed the text of the runway ad, but left the imagery the same, Willis Thomas used the text from an actual runaway advertisement, but removed the image of enslaved people and replaced them with a dancer and a athlete.
Of course, Thomas was not there to confirm or deny these references. Jan and I discussed the role of artistic intent in interpretation of art, both older and modern. We discussed that in older works of art, there is often much attention given to an artist’s intent, even though he or she isn’t there to push back on how their intention is being described. In contemporary works, even if an artist is around to speak to their intent, their perception of their own work might change overtime.
At the end of this 36 hours, my initial interpretations of Negroes to be Sold have been morphed and reaffirmed by those who I have spoken with. I can only imagine how my interpretation would develop through hearing from even more people of varied backgrounds. I think about Jan’s comments on artistic references. As interpreters, we too are referencing many things in our interpretations—from art, to childhood experiences, to current events, etc. Like an artist’s intention might shift through time, so might one’s interpretation of a object. If I were to write a short label for Negroes to be Sold after these 36 hours, it might read:
Hank Willis Thomas is a conceptual artist who engages with themes of race, identity, and popular culture. Negroes to be Sold mimics an advertisement for the sale of slaves. The text of the work comes from an 18th century slave advertisement from the South Carolina Gazette. Two figures, to the left and the right of the image, are rendered to resemble a basketball player and a performer. The combination of the text and images creates a collision of time periods. In Negroes to be Sold, Hank Willis Thomas challenges the past and present commodification of black Americans and their culture.
However, I acknowledge that this interpretation may likely change. I might come across the artist’s take on the object, and my understanding could completely transform. When the work is on display in May, it’s possible that I will overhear a visitor talking about the object, highlighting an element that has yet to cross my mind. This interpretation above is a result of engaging with the piece for 36 hours in a very specific context. What would happen if I worked on it for a year? What would it be like to interpret this piece in France? In Alabama? How might people see this work in 10 years? In 200? In many cases, interpretations, from the perspective of the museum, are often stated as settled fact, but if art viewing is subjective, as it is often purported to be, what is the role of conjecture? Perhaps in the future I will rewrite my interpretation as a series of questions, layered by the interpretations of others, flexible to change and evolution.
Cannell, Michael. “New Online Openness Lets Museums Share Works With the World.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Oct. 2015, www.nytimes.com/2015/11/01/arts/design/new-online-openness-lets-museums-share-works-with-the-world.html.
Gates, Jr. Henry Louis. “Michael Jordan’s Advertising Empire.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 18 June 2017, www.newyorker.com/magazine/1998/06/01/michael-jordans-advertising-empire.
Jackson, Scoop Via ESPN. “Impact of Jordan Brand reaches far beyond basketball.” ABC News, ABC News Network, 13 Feb. 2016, abcnews.go.com/Sports/impact-jordan-brand-reaches-basketball/story?id=36916123.
Jones, Caroline A. “The Painting in the Attic,” in Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, MIT Press, 2007
“MoMA Learning.” MoMA | Glenn Ligon. Untitled from the Runaways. 1993, www.moma.org/learn/moma_learning/glenn-ligon-untitled-from-the-runaways-1993.
Nathan, Emily. “Hank Willis Thomas on Race, the Media, and His Upcoming Armory Show Takeover.” Artsy, 26 Feb. 2015, www.artsy.net/article/editorial-hank-willis-thomas-on-race-the-media.
Nochlin, Linda. “From 1971: Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? -.” ARTnews, 2 June 2015, www.artnews.com/2015/05/30/why-have-there-been-no-great-women-artists/.
Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the past: power and the production of history. Beacon Press, 1997.