17 September 2018

South Africa: Graeme Williams Vs Hank Willis Thomas - Acceptable Artistic Appropriation - or Just Plain Old Theft?

analysis

A prominent American artist has been accused of stealing and profiting from an image taken by a South African photographer in 1990, weeks after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. The image of a group of black children taunting armed white policemen symbolised the sudden shift of power in the country in the final days of apartheid. Photographer Graeme Williams was astounded to see his photograph, massively enlarged and drained of colour, in a work signed by Hank Willis Thomas and exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Fair.

In the muted, murky colours of the vintage photograph, young black kids are kicking up their legs in a loose-limbed and joyous adaption of the toyi-toyi, the southern African liberation movement march/dance/statement. They are dressed in an array of possibly hand-me-down clothes and oversized, weary shoes except for the child leading this little band; he is barefoot. Another of the boys is leaning back as he dances along, looking up at a squad of young men dressed in dull blue uniforms. The policemen sit atop a giant armoured vehicle; most of them are looking off to the right. They do not look like they are about to break out in dance any time...

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