Artist Hank Willis Thomas unveiled his long-awaited Boston monument to the married civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King on Friday. The sculpture’s inauguration should have been a moment for celebration. Instead, the artwork quickly became a meme.
Users on Twitter and other social media platforms soon took to mocking the work, alleging that it had unintended lewd connotations. As posts poking fun at the piece went viral, some rose to its defense, pointing out the work’s more poetic aspects.
But what is the monument, anyway, and why has it suddenly gone viral? Below, a guide to Thomas’s latest work.
What is Thomas’s new public artwork?
Thomas’s new sculpture, titled The Embrace, features two pairs of disembodied arms that appear to hold each other. A hand on one of the pairs of arms has a bracelet on it; the other pair of arms appear to belong to a person wearing a suit jacket. The piece is based on a 1964 photograph of King hugging his wife after he received a Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2019, when Thomas was chosen to do the monument, he said, “Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King are monumental examples of the capacity of love to shape society. I can only hope The Embrace can be a reminder and a call to action to each of us to never forget what they’ve taught us.”
Who is Hank Willis Thomas?
Thomas is an artist whose work in multiple mediums has brought acclaim. He’s done photography projects about the representation of Black and white women in advertisements, large sculptures about Black resistance, and led artist groups such as For Freedoms, which was initially founded as a super PAC and now helps artists realize politically inflected projects. (In 2021 he guest-edited an issue of ARTnews called “The Deciders,” which sought “to help identify and highlight individuals and institutions currently contributing to the cultural conversation in a pointed way—and moving that conversation forward.”)
On Friday, shortly after the new monument was unveiled, Pace, one of the world’s largest galleries, announced that he had joined its roster.
What makes The Embrace different from other monuments to King?
There are numerous other monuments to King across the United States, including one in Washington, D.C., completed by artist Lei Yixin in 2011 that stands 30 feet high. There’s also a monument to him in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, by Erik Blome; multiple memorials in Atlanta, King’s birthplace, including one at Morehouse College by Ed Dwight; one in Philadelphia, also by Dwight, that depicts the husband and wife together; and one in Selma, Alabama, the city where King began a 1965 civil rights march.
What makes these monuments differ from Thomas’s is that they are all figurative, with clear views of Martin Luther King Jr.’s face, as well as that of Coretta Scott King, in the case of the Dwight sculpture in Philadelphia. Unlike any of the monuments by Dwight, perhaps the most prolific sculptor of statues devoted to King, Thomas’s piece elides visages. Although hardly abstract, The Embrace makes it notably difficult to ascertain which hands belong to which arms.
Also notable is the fact that it honors Coretta Scott King alongside Martin Luther King Jr., to whom she was married from 1953 until his death in 1968. (Scholars have recently begun to present a not entirely rosy picture of their marriage.) While the Dwight sculpture in Philadelphia does represent Coretta, it is an anomaly among these monuments.
Why did The Embrace go viral?
Almost as soon as it was unveiled, the monument became the subject of social posts in which people compared it to unprintable sexual acts. “Maybe I should text him,” reads one tweet paired with a side view of the sculpture in which an arm looks like an engorged phallus. There were other, more graphic posts too.
“Pretty wild how they sculpted the MLK statue to look like a different sex act, hole, or bodily function from every angle,” reads another tweet that gained 5,000 likes. “Impressive tbh.”
Others took the monument to task because it appeared to objectify the Kings. “It doesn’t sit well with me that Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King are reduced to body parts—just their arms. Not their faces—their expressions,” wrote Karen Attiah, global opinions editor for the Washington Post. She too had to admit that, from a certain angle, it looked like a person performing oral sex. “No matter how much I try, I can’t unsee it,” Attiah said.
What have its defenders said?
Many have also praised the work as a powerful, positive image. Ahead of the unveiling, Imari K. Paris Jeffries, executive director of Embrace Boston, the nonprofit that sponsored the competition for the monument, told the New York Times, “We know that … Dr. King didn’t do it alone. The King family didn’t do it alone, that we’re doing it as a loving community and I want them to hear that story.”
After the work went viral, Martin Luther King III told CNN, “I think the artist did a great job. I’m satisfied. Yeah, it didn’t have my mom and dad’s images, but it represents something that brings people together.”
Has Thomas responded to the criticism?
In an interview with CNN, Thomas defended the work, noting that other public artworks, including Maya Lin’s famed Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., had also met with a good deal of derision. “This is a piece that was selected by the people of Boston,” he said. “This is not Hank just came and put something [here]. Thousands of people worked on this, thousands of people actually put it together and no one saw this, I would say, perverse perspective.”
And on Instagram, Thomas quoted King’s “Love Your Enemies” sermon. “Here’s the person who is a neighbor, and this person is doing something wrong to you and all of that,” it reads. “Just keep being friendly to that person. Keep loving them. Don’t do anything to embarrass them. Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. They react with bitterness because they’re mad because you love them like that. They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.”