Hank Willis Thomas’s History Doesn’t Laugh, shown in Johannesburg and Cape Town in early 2014, represented in some ways an extension of themes evident in his earlier work. But the show, which drew on a range of historical sources and archival materials, also included a notable accent upon hand gestures—and particularly upon clenched fists. Indeed, the repetition of the motif seemed to imply a transhistorical reading of the fist as a symbol: the removal of historical detail and the use of pan-African titles positioned the clenched fist as a static gesture of resistance. A closer look at the history of the gesture in apartheid-era visual culture, however, quickly reveals the importance of local context, and the mutable associations of the raised fist. Moreover, as several theorists and historians of South African photography have suggested, a static, humanizing view of gesture can lead to a devaluation of historical specificity—and, arguably, to an abrogation of historical responsibility. In considering Thomas’s use of gesture, then, I urge a related attention to the original contexts and implications of the gestures reproduced in his work.

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