The Cotton Bowl is from the series “Strange Fruit,” which is a “visual and conceptual explanation of the black body as spectacle and souvenir in the American popular culture.” The name “Strange Fruit” comes from a poem by Abel Meeropol (and the subsequent 1937 Billie Holiday song of the same name) written in response to a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. Meeropol was disturbed by the postcard quality of photographs of the hanging. The poem began with the line “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.” In the series, Thomas reappoints souvenir-like images of racism in history, such as lynchings and fieldwork. These images of black males in servile roles were once as commonplace as our images of black males in sports are today. Looking at found images from our history, Thomas explores not only what they meant in terms of our past but also how they reflect our current collective beliefs.
The Cotton Bowl features the iconic images of a football player crouching on the yard line and the mirror image of an enslaved person crouching to pick cotton. The visual parallel makes the connection between the role of the servant and the role of the black male athlete, with the artist asking the viewer to reconsider a common historical trope and look at its relationship to the present moment in a new light. An enslaved person’s value lay in his physicality and strength, just as an athlete’s worth is tied to his physical prowess. The crouching football player is as much a part of our shared visual language as images of slavery and racism. Even though athletes are equated with success, power, and prestige, the imagery still relates to horror and racism from our past. Is the horrific being replaced by the triumphant? Or is the familiar being recast, a subconscious comfort with historical roles being put to work for those already in a position of power? An association is made between the black fieldworker who toils for the landowner’s profit and the athlete who works for the profit of the team owner and the marketing and advertising teams who rely on his image and iconography for their own success. Thomas repurposes the imagery of marketing and advertising – the glamour, gloss, and metaphor – to ask his own questions about the story popular culture is telling, and who is writing that story. By looking at past themes in a different context, Willis illuminates new relationships and meanings within the context of our present moment.
Tags: contemporary, American history, social studies