South African Photographer Accuses Hank Willis Thomas of Plagiarism

Renowned American artist Hank Willis Thomas withdrew a work from the Johannesburg art fair last week after South African photographer Graeme Williams expressed outrage at finding an altered version of his own iconic photograph at Goodman Gallery under the artist’s name. Thomas’s image is a differently toned black-and-white version of Williams’s original 1990 photograph, which depicts a group of black schoolkids who mockingly strut in front of white policemen sitting atop an armored car. Williams’s image has come to be seen as a representation of a waning apartheid regime. Thomas is known for art that explores questions of race and class, often appropriating advertising sans text to reveal the imagery’s core—and often sinister—messages.

“The changes were absolutely minimal,” Williams told The Guardian. “It’s theft, plagiarism, appropriation. It’s a kind of fine line where you say it falls,” said Williams. “Within the art world there’s an acceptance that you can use images within the artistic framework to create something that has meaning different to the original image. This was the exact same of my original photograph and all he had done is take an image that he likes and call it his own.”

The gallery plucked the work from the display one day after the fair’s opening, and Thomas offered to cease showing the work publicly. Yet despite the swift removal of the work—which was listed for $36,000, a price Williams said was twenty-five times the amount he ever received for his image—Thomas expressed skepticism about the ownership of the photograph. “I can empathize with his concern and frustration but there are critical questions about who has the right to the image and whether it be subjects of the image, who I am most interested in,” he said. “If the subjects of the image were compensated or remunerated. If they were asked. There’s a lot of questions related to representation, objectification, exploitation.” He went on to liken his work to the sampling and remixing inherent in rap music.

Goodman Gallery director Liza Essers said that she supports Thomas, but is also “sensitive to Graeme feeling the way he does.” Thomas said he would let Williams keep the work for one year so that they might afterward have a “deeper conversation,” an offer Williams called “utterly bizarre.”

“I take this artwork and keep it for a year and then we’ll chat after that? Fuck knows what that means. Perhaps that after a year I’ll understand the complexity of his artwork. I said no thanks. I have my own version of the photograph and I really don’t need an American to give that image some kind of significance and meaning.”