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, adjunct curator at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC 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, “The Blackness of Ornament: Black Figures in the Decorative Arts of Europe.” The views expressed in this comment are her own. Read more comments at CNN.


Arms and hands can represent the gamut of human physical and mental life. Gestures can express strength, protest, aggression, fear, love, hate, passion, comfort and more. Rosie the Riveter’s pumping bicep and the rising fists of John Carlos and Tommie Smith communicated some of the most powerful cultural messages in American history.

Adrienne Childs

Using the powerful language of gesture — one that has long been part of his iconic repertoire — artist Hank Willis Thomas created “The Embrace,” a public monument to the American icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. .

Unveiled on January 13 at the Boston Common, “The Embrace” is based on the embrace of Dr. and Mrs. King from a photo taken when Dr. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. In that photo, Thomas saw the bond between the couple. The warmth between them, the support that brought them through the years of their marriage and beyond.

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

The compositional structure of his royal monument was not an isolated statement for Thomas. Improper hands and arms are among the artist’s trademarks. He used acronyms to describe violence, the complexities of the sports industry, and now, The power of love.

In “Raise Up” of 2014, we meet the heads and raised arms of 10 black men – although these broken body parts refer to the image of South African men who are forced to assume this risk in a group medical examination, it also communicates a lot about ignorance. The tension that black people have experienced from violent “official” forces throughout American history. These types of class references are endemic to Thomas’ practice.

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

From social justice to social upliftment, Thomas used a single bronze arm pointing toward the sky 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 Culture for the Arts, Department of Transportation and Department of Design and Construction.  Photo credit: Matthew Lapiska, NYC Department of Design and Construction

Although the bronze may suggest a black arm in the context of Thomas’s larger work, “unity” provides a sense of worldliness and intentionality in a stealthy gesture. Perhaps its elegant simplicity is more easily read than the compositional complexity of “The Embrace.”

Although Dr. and Mrs. King have some of the most recognizable faces in American history and the enormous power associated with those faces, Mr. Thomas has chosen to emphasize the expressive capacity of arms again.

I heard Thomas say in a recent comment that too much burden is placed on the king and the kingdom. Like them in working hard for social justice. I agree that Dr. The face of the king has become an index of movement at the expense of many others.

“The Embrace” wishes to reveal the love and support of the university in a way that is not swayed by the universal vision of Dr. Who can argue with this bold intention? Indeed, many, including members of the royal family, praised his vision. But his approach resulted in some opposition and difficult reactions to the monument.

Some have complained about the concept of the monument. Others complained that it did not adequately represent the Dr. Monument. The legacy of the king. Does its focus on love distract from the fact that the struggle continues? From some angles, the observer imagined a picture that was bleak, ugly and ugly. This was clearly not the artist’s intention.

But when emotional words are bandied about on social media, they are motivated to take on more importance than they benefit. It’s no surprise that sexual references have become a hot topic for the complaint mill.

Even the lovely comedian Leslie Jones took the statue to task, claiming she was “invisible” to sexual abuse. But like most comedies, her routine reveals both its contradictions and its absurdity.

2011 Dr. King Memorial Created for Washington, DC, the most politically charged place for Anu. The history of America is still being disputed. Are monuments too traditional? Does it really look like Dr. King? Are Chinese-American artists standing to represent African-American heroes? These questions are unanswered.

A 30-foot, 8-inch granite sculpture of the king stands among cherry trees on four acres on the northwest shore of the Tidal Basin in Washington.  The statue depicts the king in a business suit with his arms folded, holding a scroll and looking over a basin.

There is never a shortage of opposition to public statues, especially when Blackness is at issue. In 2011, after being commissioned to produce work for the Indianapolis Cultural Trail, African-American artist Fred Wilson’s sculpture, “E Pluribus Unum,” was canceled before it could be installed.

The design is an image of a terrible slave selected from soldiers and sailors Monument in Indianapolis, where the original image is a symbol of black submission. Wilson’s work will transform the image into an image of empowerment – a critical intervention often used by Wilson. However, the African-American community objected to the representation of subservience, and the project was eventually abandoned.

Thomas’s statement to the King comes at a time when the controversy surrounding the monument has become part of our public reckoning with America’s violent and racist past and present. Monuments of the Confederacy – built as much to support white supremacy as to commemorate the glory of the past – are attacked and dismantled as vestiges of racism as a progressive system of visual culture. Indeed, art is an important tool to seize and question political power.

For too long, stories of black resistance, struggle and achievement have been absent from the vast web of American sculpture. At the monument Dr And other African Americans, such as Harriett Tubman and Frederick Douglass, who remember the warriors for social justice and the rich challenge of the monument to the great white man.

Renée Ater, visiting professor in Africana Studies at Brown University, has delved into the history of American monuments dealing with America’s slave past and recently spoke with four black monument artists who discussed the problems they encountered in the process of creating the monument. in America.

For decades we have faced the inequalities that exist in our public art, and now we reckon with them. Thomas’s brave journey into the tumultuous world of historic public monuments was never easy.

There are countless memorials to Dr. King across the country, and around the world. Most of the images represent a trend that is very pleasing to the general public. Thomas’ “The Embrace” takes an alternative entry point into the business of remembering Dr. I admire his decision to take risks with his elements and focus on Love and kindness


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