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IN THE PHOTOGRAPH Branded Head (2003), the shape of a black man’s clean-shaven head gracefully curves against a plain white background. The subject’s face—and with it all the features that might have identified him—is outside of the frame. The viewer’s attention is drawn instead to a keloid several inches above his ear in the shape of the Nike swoosh. The man is branded.

The portrait is a searing critique of what its creator, artist Hank Willis Thomas, calls a commodifiable blackness. “Young African American men especially”, Thomas observes, “have been known to pay to become the best advertisers anyone could ask for.” Without the Nike swoosh, Thomas’s subject would be entirely anonymous, a faceless black body. Branded, he becomes recognizable—yet in a way that accepts commodification as the source of his identity.

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