Hank Willis Thomas is finally ready to sit back and enjoy the game.
On Sunday, the Brooklyn-based artist will cheer for the Philadelphia Eagles from his reserved seat at the Super Bowl in Arizona’s State Farm Stadium, where local art handlers and a member of his studio team have installed a large stainless-steel sculpture of an athlete’s hand grasping for a football. The ten-foot-tall statue, titled Opportunity (reflection), has been in the works for nearly six months, ever since the National Football League asked Thomas for help celebrating the sport’s importance in American culture.
“There is a metaphor here,” Thomas told ARTnews in a recent interview, explaining how the sculpture’s reflective surface resembled the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to the winning Super Bowl team. “That trophy symbolizes the highest peak of success in the league.”
Only a few weeks earlier, the artist was receiving a different kind of top honor. On an unseasonably mild January afternoon in Boston, Thomas presided over the unveiling of The Embrace, his monument to the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King. That day was five years in the making — time spent navigating a labyrinthian public approval process and hundreds of questions about how to transport the 37,000-pound bronze statue — likely the largest in the United States — from a foundry in Walla Walla, Washington to the Boston Common.
Elected officials including Boston Mayor Michelle Wu, as well several of Kings’ relatives, were at the ceremony, as were many of the historians and activists who have urged Boston to include more representations of Black historical figures among the many white men featured in its tourist attractions and monuments about the city’s colonial past. A nonprofit called the Boston Foundation helped provide resources and $10.5 million in funds so that the statue could stand in the park’s 1965 Freedom Plaza, which honors 64 local civil rights leaders from the 1950s to the 1970s.
“We are learning how to have critical discourse in the public and how that works is not for the weak-stomached.”Hank Willis Thomas, On The Response To The Embrace
The new MLK monument, according to Thomas, is about love. He wanted to push the boundaries of the figurative style usually associated with public art. With his collaborators at the architecture firm MASS Design Group, Thomas worked from a photograph of the couple hugging shortly after King won the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. The resulting sculpture — a 20-foot tall statue made of 609 pieces of welded bronze — focused on that loving gesture and omitted the civil rights icons’ faces. In Thomas’ vision, visitors could walk under the monumental work’s arched arms and experience King and Coretta Scott’s famed embrace, a living memorial honoring King’s vision of a more loving and just society.
“The invitation of our work is for the viewer to walk inside and feel like they are in the heart of that embrace between King and his wife,” Thomas said.
But images of the sculpture shared on social media illustrated a different kind of love. Mayor Wu was still speaking at the dedication ceremony when the sculpture was transformed into a meme on TikTok and Twitter, with users describing it irreverently as “a masturbatory metal homage” and a “horny Rorshach test.” Many users coalesced around the idea that the statue depicted sexual acts from every angle, and conspiracy theorists alleged that Thomas had intentionally disgraced two of the most beloved figures in American history.
None of that was true, but the rumors spread so quickly that some attendees of the opening celebrations were still at the monument site when they started receiving text messages from friends asking: Did the Martin Luther King Jr. monument really look like an enormous phallus?
“The internet is going to internet,” Yng-Ru Chen, a Boston gallerist who attended the opening told ARTnews. She disagreed with the online reactions to the memorial and said that experiencing the sculpture in person made it difficult to see what others did. “I very much enjoyed the monument when I was standing in front of it.”
How such a prolific artist like Hank Willis Thomas could see one of his greatest achievements sullied was a question that has stumped the art world. Few artists are as engaged with the public, and virtually none have the same level of expertise when it comes to navigating questions of representation and memorialization.
Thomas’ Long History With Public Art
Between 2015 and 2020, Thomas served on the New York City Public Design Commission, which oversees the municipal collection of permanent monuments and votes to approve new ones. His appointment coincided with a tumultuous period in the agency’s history, when the de Blasio administration greenlit nearly a dozen monuments that it ultimately never built. Some activists blamed the Public Design Commission for not doing enough to increase the city’s miniscule number of statues honoring women and people of color.
At the time, Thomas was not afraid to weigh into such controversial topics. “There are what, five or six [male] statues that I think could easily be replaced by individual statues of each of these women,” he said during a 2019 hearing about increasing gender diversity in the city’s statues. That comment was picked apart by the New York Post in an article claiming that he was putting the city’s monument men in peril. But colleagues described Thomas as taking that role very seriously.
“Commissioners make a choice to serve and contribute to the City of New York and with that, bring in their expertise and experience,” Mary Valverde, a commissioner who served alongside the artist, told ARTnews. “I can say that as a colleague Hank has been pleasant and I have only known him to be open and generous in nature.”
During the same period that Thomas served as a commissioner, he expanded his public art practice.
In 2016, Thomas, along with fellow artists Eric Gottesman, Michelle Woo, and Wyatt Gallery, founded Super PAC For Freedoms to serve as an artistic platform for civic engagement. The “collective,” as Thomas has characterized it, has commissioned artists to create billboards during political elections and has staged awareness campaigns tackling issues like the Iranian government’s treatment of women. According to Thomas, the collective has about 30 members, many of whom work on the artist’s personal projects. “We don’t really draw lines with the studio,” he said.
During his tenure on the Public Design Commission, Thomas also marshaled his own permanent monument onto the city streets. Near the Brooklyn Bridge, he erected Unity, a 22-foot bronze arm with an index finger pointing skyward. The work was commissioned by another city agency called the Percent for Art program, though it still needed approval from the Public Design Commission. (Thomas recused himself from those deliberations.) When the statue was unveiled in 2019, a New York Times critic described it as “a traditional and fairly conservative work.”
Thomas still remembers the detractors who claimed his piece was extremist. At the time, a handful of preservation activists and Republican politicians claimed that Unity was a symbol of ISIS, the terrorist group. A city spokesman eventually came to the artist’s defense. “This accusation is completely absurd — is every sports fan who holds up a foam finger an ISIS sympathizer?” Ryan Max, an employee with the Cultural Affairs Department had said. “The gesture depicted by this sculpture is a universal sign of uplift and aspiration.”
The experience with Unity prepared Thomas, he said, for “disparate and unexpected responses” to his public art works, adding that his proposal for The Embrace was the most representational option from the five finalists, which included abstractions by Yinka Shonibare, Barbara Chase-Riboud, and other famous artists. Chosen from over one hundred artist proposals, the finalists’ designs were shared with the public in 2018, receiving over 1,000 comments, before Thomas’ Embrace was finally selected in 2019 by the Boston Art Commission, which oversees public art in the city.
Though other people have characterized the debate around The Embrace as a controversy, Thomas sees it as a public conversation. “We are learning how to have critical discourse in the public and how that works is not for the weak-stomached,” he said. “Lots of people heard about the monument before the online feedback, but ten times more people heard about it after. Kim Kardashian on her trip to Harvard Business School even felt the need to drive by and post about it.”
As he mentioned Kardashian, he received an update on Instagram — the artist Nina Chanel Abney was posting positively about The Embrace on her social media account.
“It’s important that I talk about how my practice is a conversation with the viewer,” Thomas continued. “To whatever degree there is adversity, it is also an opportunity for me to engage. How could I be upset or disappointed when a work about communal love is so well-embraced?”
Thomas said he was “fascinated” to see how responses to The Embrace became shaped by a particular photographic angle once it was fed into social media and that he was “surprised” that there was far more focus in web publications on that response than King’s legacy.
“It was surprising, like a reality check,” Thomas said, explaining that he made a series of maquettes so that his team, funders, and public officials could scrutinize the design. Nobody, he said, had ever raised an issue as far he knew with how the memorial looked from different angles.
“You forget that the media is a business, and they say sex sells,” Thomas said. “So it’s like, oh right, how naïve of me to think we can talk about social justice and not have it overshadowed with juvenile conversations.”
Not everyone has agreed that the controversy was all spectacle. There are some relatives of the Kings who were displeased with the monument. Seneca Scott, a cousin of Coretta Scott King, tweeted “I still can’t get over how they tried to play my fam,” adding in an essay that he found the sculpture “rather insulting.” Later, in the week, when speaking to The Guardian, he revised his original statement. “When I wrote that, I was in the anger part of grief. Now I’ve accepted the grief,” he said, adding that the fact that the statue was privately funded had made him “not nearly as upset.”
The initial blowback, however, forced advocates into damage control. Even Boston’s mayor, Michelle Wu, had to defend the monument to her own colleagues. “I went to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, I think the next week, and I told everyone off,” she said in a recent interview. “I said it was our monument. We are proud of it. We love it.”
Making Public Art Means Accepting That ‘You Can’t Please Everyone’
Other artists who’ve experienced their own public art controversies are sympathetic to Thomas.
“Criticizing specific angles of the sculpture out of its context is like judging an entire painting based solely on specific details,” artist Lava Thomas, who is not related to Hank, told ARTnews. “It’s a limited perspective.
In 2019, Lava Thomas learned that San Francisco had scrapped her winning proposal for a Maya Angelou monument because an elected official did not like the nonfigurative elements of her design, which included a nine-foot-tall bronze book with Angelou’s portrait on one side and her words on the other. It would take the artist another year of fighting through bureaucracy and organizing support until public officials reinstated her version, though it has yet to be completed.
When asked how to prepare for the public art process, she recommended that artists “develop a tough skin and accept that you can’t please everyone.”
Hank Willis Thomas seems to have developed that thick skin. He has been attending an classes at Harvard Business School in a classroom not far from where his 2015 artwork “Ernest and Ruth” once sat on the campus quad (That edition of the work has since been moved to Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C.). And, while he commutes between Boston and his homebase of New York, he is already planning a series of other public artworks — at least six in the near future — in cities like Seattle, Chicago, Miami, Austin, and San Antonio
It would stand to reason, then, that traveling to the Super Bowl and seeing Opportunity (reflection) surrounded by the 60,000 sports fans walking toward the game must be something of a relief for Thomas. The sculpture is based on his previous work, Opportunity, which belongs to a private collection and has a chameleon-like finish that changes color as the viewer passes it. Like many of his public artworks, the new monument will be placed outside, temporarily placed on the lawn outside the State Farm Stadium. it will then be on view for one year in front of the Arizona State University Art Museum.
“Hank’s powerful sculpture showcased during Super Bowl week beautifully represents the passion, strength, and hope at the heart of our game,” Peter O’Reilly, a spokesman for the NFL, said in a statement. “We hope the sculpture inspires the thousands of individuals who experience it throughout the week and well beyond.”
Thomas remains close to the spotlight, but this weekend he will not be the subject of scrutiny; for the moment. He can leave that burden to the coaches and players on the field.
“I just feel honored to be a part of all of it,” Thomas said.