I think public art is propaganda, frankly.
~Hank Willis Thomas, 2019
In 2019, Brooklyn-based multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas was awarded a commission to create a sculpture celebrating the civil-rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. The monument was to be installed on Boston Common, America’s oldest public park, where King gave a speech to a crowd of 22,000 people in April 1965. Thomas was among five finalists out of 126 applicants whose work was reviewed by a committee convened by the City of Boston and the non-profit Embrace Boston. The non-profit’s stated mission is “to dismantle structural racism through our work at the intersection of arts and culture, community, and research and policy.” In the section dedicated to “arts and cultural representation” this goal is further specified as:
Activate arts and culture to reimagine and recast cultural representations of language, images, narratives, and cognitive cues to interrupt and reimagine the public’s conventional wisdom about race in which White privilege and racial disparities are perceived as normal and disconnected from history and institutions. [emphasis in original]
At first glance, the sculpture made possible by Embrace Boston, also serendipitously titled ‘The Embrace,’ seems perfect for recasting cultural representations. The monument is based on a 1964 photo of a celebratory hug shared by King and his wife after he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Had Hank Willis Thomas gone down the well-trotted path of figuration—providing a portrait likeness of his subjects—‘The Embrace’ would have been treated as any other dignified public sculpture project, garnering complimentary mentions and perhaps some accolades, that rubbed off the memory of MLK onto his bronze avatar. But the artist, who came to sculpture from photography, and whose other work emphasizes concept over form, chose an approach that eschewed figuration. The Boston sculpture presented emblematically posed, disembodied extremities (no heads, no torsos) intended to convey an idea not through representation, but through a symbol of love.
Hank Willis Thomas had already tested this model, most recently in ‘Unity’ (2019)—a pedestal-less, bronze, 20-foot-tall arm, amputated across its rotator cuff and planted on the cement divider at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge, its index finger raised to the sky. It has been favorably received. The latest 20-foot-tall monument, which reportedly cost $10m of private funding, was finally unveiled on January 13th, in front of local dignitaries and MLK’s son Martin Luther King III. While the reaction on the scene was celebratory, social media erupted with a panoply of jokes, most of which zeroed in on the sexual associations prompted by the tangle of intertwining limbs.
In 2019, Hank Willis Thomas unveiled “Unity,” a sculpture in @DowntownBklyn commissioned by our #PercentforArtNYC program. Towering bronze sculptures, “The Embrace” and “Unity” both personify the incredible impact of solidarity and community empowerment. pic.twitter.com/cb3wrgFrBH
— NYC Cultural Affairs (@NYCulture) January 16, 2023
The uproar was impossible to ignore. The website Hyperallergic—a bastion of progressivism—ran an article titled, “The New MLK Sculpture Is Officially a Meme,” highlighting noteworthy responses from Twitter and TikTok. The sculpture was also the subject of a brutal routine by the comedian Leslie Jones on The Daily Show: