Editor’s Note: Adrienne L. Childs, Ph.D., is an independent scholar and art historian, adjunct curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC and the 2022 recipient of the Driskell Prize for her contributions in the field of African American art. She is the author of the forthcoming book, “Ornamental Blackness: The Black Figure in European Decorative Arts.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Arms and hands can represent the gamut of physical and emotional lives of humans. A gesture can express strength, protest, aggression, fear, love, hate, passion, comfort and much more. Rosie the Riveter’s pumping bicep and the soaring fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith have communicated some of the most potent cultural messages in American history.
Using the powerful language of gesture — one that has long been part of his symbolic repertoire — artist Hank Willis Thomas has created “The Embrace,” a public monument to American icons Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.
Unveiled on January 13 in Boston Common, “The Embrace” excerpts the embracing arms of Dr. and Mrs. King from a photograph taken when Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In that photograph, Thomas saw the couple’s bond, the warmth between them, the support that carried them through the years of their marriage and beyond.
The compositional framework of his King monument is not an isolated statement for Thomas. Disembodied hands and arms are among the artist’s trademark symbols. He has used abbreviated embodiments to tell epic stories of violence, the sports industrial complex and now, the power of love.
In “Raise Up” of 2014, we encounter heads and raised arms of 10 Black men — although these fragmented body parts reference a photograph of South African men forced to assume this vulnerable stance in a group medical examination, it also communicates much about the fraught entanglements that Black men have experienced from violent “official” forces throughout American history. These kinds of layered references are endemic to Thomas’ practice.
From social justice to social uplift, Thomas used a single bronze arm pointing to the sky in his 2019 public sculpture, “Unity,” installed near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge.
Although the bronze may suggest a Black arm in the context of Thomas’ larger body of work, “Unity” imparts the sense of a universal and deliberate upward ascendancy delivered in a stealthy gesture. Perhaps its elegant simplicity is more easily readable than the compositional complexity of “The Embrace.”
Although Dr. and Mrs. King have some of the most recognizable faces in American history and there is a great deal of power associated with those faces, Thomas chose to highlight the expressive possibility of the arms once again.
I have heard Thomas say in recent commentary that an outsize burden is placed on the Kings and their likeness to do the hard work of social justice. I agree that Dr. King’s face has become an index of the movement at the expense of many others.
“The Embrace” aspires to reveal the universality of love and support in a form that has been unmoored from Dr. King’s ubiquitous visage. Who could argue with this brave intention? Indeed, many, including members of the King family, have praised his vision. Yet his approach has resulted in some resistance and troubling 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. King’s legacy. Does its focus on love detract from the fact that the struggle continues? From some angles, observers have imagined lewd, crude and lascivious images. This was clearly not the artist’s intention.
But when sensational remarks are bandied about on social media, they gain exponential traction taking on more importance than they merit. It is not surprising that the sexual references became grist for the complaint mill.
Even the hilarious comedian Leslie Jones took the statue to task, claiming she “can’t unsee ” the sexual innuendo. But just as comedy often does, her routine exposed both the controversy and its absurdity.
The 2011 monument to Dr. King created for Washington, DC, arguably the most politically charged site for American historical monuments, was also marred with controversy. Was the monument too conventional? Did it really look like Dr. King? Did a Chinese-American artist have the standing to represent an African-American hero? These questions are unanswerable.
There is never a shortage of objections to public sculpture, particularly when Blackness is at stake. In 2011, after having been commissioned to produce a work for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, African-American artist Fred Wilson’s statue, “E Pluribus Unum,” was canceled before it could even be installed.
The design was an image of a cowering slave excerpted from the 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. Yet the African-American community objected to the representation of subservience, and the project was eventually abandoned.
Thomas’ ode to the King legacy comes at a time when controversies surrounding monuments have been part of our public reckoning with America’s violent and racist past and present. Monuments to confederates — erected as much to support White supremacy as to commemorate past glories — have been attacked and dismantled as vestiges of systemic racism advanced by visual culture. Indeed, the arts are an important tool in the wielding of and questioning of political power.
For too long, stories of Black resistance, struggle and achievement have been absent from America’s vast web of celebratory statuary. On the rise are monuments to Dr. King and other African Americans, such as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, that memorialize warriors for social justice and challenge the plethora of monuments to great White men.
Renée Ater, visiting professor in Africana Studies at Brown University, has delved deeply into the history of American monuments that deal with America’s slave past and was recently in conversation with four Black monument artists who discuss issues they have encountered in the process of monument-making in America.
For decades we have been confronted with the inequities inherent in our public art, and we are now reckoning with them. Thomas’ brave foray into the tumultuous world of historical public monuments was never going to be easy.
There are countless memorials to Dr. King across the country, and indeed across the globe. Most are representational depictions that tend to be more palatable to the general public. Thomas’ “The Embrace” takes an alternate entry point into the business of memorializing Dr. King. I applaud his decision to take a risk with his composition and to focus on love and compassion