Copied Hank Willis Thomas, Pledge, 2018, screenprint on retroflective vinyl mounted on aluminum composite, 78 12 × 97 12 × 2 in. (199.4 × 247.7 × 5.1 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Elizabeth and James Eisenstein Family, 2023.12

Artwork Details

78 12 × 97 12 × 2 in. (199.4 × 247.7 × 5.1 cm)
Credit Line
Gift of the Elizabeth and James Eisenstein Family
Mediums Description
screenprint on retroflective vinyl mounted on aluminum composite
Object Number

Artwork Description

To fully experience Pledge, stand in front of it and illuminate it with the flash of a cell phone camera.

In ordinary light, you see an American flag hovering against a plain background. When the camera flash strikes, it lights up the surface to reveal the full picture. The full image shows boys of various ethnicities saluting the flag. As the flash dissipates, the image fragments again, leaving only the hovering flag.

Hank Willis Thomas based this work on an earlier photograph taken by Dorothea Lange. She made her image for the War Relocation Authority in 1942, to document Japanese Americans in the San Francisco area before and after their forced relocation to concentration camps. Lange captured the image at a public school before the students of Japanese descent were relocated.

Willis Thomas says that his retroreflective works illuminate "images, stories and parts of history that are often overlooked or have become . . . lost." The boys' removal from the image in Pledge stages their removal as citizens from American history. By rephotographing the artwork, viewers engage with history, bringing to light this lost story and reclaiming the boys' visibility within it.