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Opinion: The absurdity of the backlash over the MLK statue

Editor’s note: Adrienne L. Childs, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and art historian, assistant curator at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., and recipient of the 2022 Driskell Prize for her contributions to the field of African American art. . She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts”. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.


Arms and hands can represent the full range of human physical and emotional lives. A gesture can express strength, protest, aggression, fear, love, hate, passion, comfort and much more. The powerful biceps of Rosie the Riveter and the raised fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith communicated some of the most powerful cultural messages in American history.

Using powerful sign language – long a part of his symbolic repertoire – artist Hank Willis Thomas has created “The Embrace”, a public monument dedicated to American icons, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. .

Unveiled Jan. 13 at Boston Common, “The Embrace” extracts the embracing arms of Dr. and Mrs. King from a photograph taken when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In this photograph, Thomas saw the the couple’s bond, the warmth between them, the support that carried them through the years of their marriage and beyond.

BOSTON, MA - JANUARY 13: 'The Embrace' sculpture unveiling at Boston Common on January 13, 2023. Credit: Katy Rogers/MediaPunch /IPX

The compositional setting of his King monument is not an isolated statement for Thomas. Disembodied hands and arms are among the artist’s distinctive signs. He used abbreviated incarnations to tell epic tales of violence, the industrial sports complex and now, the power of love.

In 2014’s “Raise Up” we encounter the raised heads and arms of 10 black men – although these fragmented body parts refer to a photograph of South African men forced into this vulnerable position during a group medical examination, it also says a lot about the heavy entanglements black men have endured at the hands of violent “official” forces throughout American history. These types of superimposed references are endemic to Thomas’s practice.

Hank Willis Thomas, Raise Up, 2014 © Hank Willis Thomas.  Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

From social justice to social upliftment, Thomas used a single, sky-pointing bronze arm in his 2019 public sculpture, “Unity,” installed near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.

© Hank Willis Thomas, Unity, 2019, an original work commissioned by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs percent for the Art Program, Department of Transportation, and Department of Design and Construction.  Photo Credit: Matthew Lapiska, New York City Department of Design and Construction

Although the bronze may suggest a black arm in the context of Thomas’ body of work, “Unity” conveys the sense of a universal and deliberate upward ascension delivered in a stealthy gesture. Perhaps its elegant simplicity is more easily readable than the complexity of the composition of “The Embrace”.

Although Dr. and Mrs. King have some of the most recognizable faces in American history, and there is a lot of power associated with those faces, Thomas chose to once again emphasize the expressive possibility of weapons.

I heard Thomas say in a recent comment that an inordinate burden is placed on kings and their likeness to do the hard work of social justice. I agree that Dr. King’s face has become a clue to the movement to the detriment of many others.

“The Embrace” aspires to reveal the universality of love and support in a form that has been detached from the ever-present face of Dr. King. Who could argue with this brave intention? Indeed, many, including members of the King family, have praised his vision. However, his approach has aroused resistance and disturbing reactions to the monument.

Some have complained about the conceptual nature of the monument. Others lament that it does not adequately represent the monumentality of Dr. The King’s Legacy. Does the emphasis on love take away from the fact that the struggle continues? From certain angles, observers imagined obscene, crude and lascivious images. This was clearly not the artist’s intention.

But when sensational remarks are shared on social media, they grow exponentially in popularity and take on more prominence than they deserve. It’s no surprise that sexual references have become water for the complaint mill.

Even hilarious comedian Leslie Jones took the statue to task, saying she “can’t ignore” the sexual innuendo. But just as comedy often does, his routine exposed both controversy and absurdity.

The 2011 monument to Dr. King created for Washington, DC, arguably the most politically charged site for American historical landmarks, has also been marred by controversy. Was the monument too conventional? Did that really sound like Dr. King? Did a Chinese-American artist have the quality to represent an African-American hero? These questions are unanswered.

A 30-foot, 8-inch granite sculpture of King stands amid cherry trees on four acres on the northwest shore of Washington's Tidal Basin.  The statue depicts King in a business suit, arms crossed, holding a scroll and looking across the basin.

Objections to public sculpture are never lacking, especially when blackness is at stake. Pluribus Unum”, was canceled before it could even be installed.

The design was an image of a cowering slave extracted from soldiers and sailors Monument in Indianapolis, where the original figure was the symbol of black submission. Wilson’s work would reframe the figure as an image of empowerment – ​​a critical intervention often used by Wilson. Still, the African-American community objected to the depiction of enslavement, and the project was eventually scrapped.

Thomas’ ode to the king’s legacy comes at a time when controversies surrounding monuments are part of our public opinion of America’s violent and racist past and present. Confederate monuments — erected as much to support white supremacy as to commemorate past glories — have been attacked and dismantled as vestiges of the systemic racism advanced by visual culture. Indeed, the arts are an important tool in the exercise and challenge of political power.

For too long, stories of black resistance, struggle, and success have been absent from America’s vast network of celebratory statuary. On the rise are monuments to Dr King and other African Americans, such as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who commemorate warriors for social justice and challenge the plethora of monuments to great white men.

Renée Ater, a visiting professor of African studies at Brown University, delved into the history of American monuments that deal with America’s slave past and recently had a conversation with four black monument artists who discuss the issues they encountered in the monument-making process. in America.

For decades we have struggled with the inherent inequalities in our public art, and now we have to reckon with them. Thomas’ courageous foray into the tumultuous world of historic public monuments was never going to be easy.

There are countless memorials to Dr. King across the country, and even around the world. Most are representative depictions that tend to be more palatable to the general public. Thomas’ “The Embrace” takes another entry point into Dr. King’s commemoration enterprise. I applaud his decision to take a risk with his songwriting and focus on love and compassion.

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