THE CLENCHED FIST, a symbol of Black Power and strength in the face of adversity, is showing up in museums. The historic gesture reflects the current moment in which many groups, frustrated with the political climate and erosion of democratic norms, are marching for social justice and raising their voices and fists in calls for change. The symbol is resonating with a new generation and finding its way into the work of contemporary artists.
A 100-foot-long sculpture composed of 150 suspended forearms with clenched fists is on view at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. “Bridge” (2014) is the first artwork Los Angeles-based Glenn Kaino made in collaboration with gold-medal sprinter Tommie Smith.
Fifty years ago, Smith stood on the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City and raised his fist in silent protest. (Bronze medalist John Carlos raised his fist, too.) They objected to global human rights abuses and wanted to raise awareness about the fight for civil rights in the United States. The image was seen around the world and served as an example of how individual actions can have outsized influence.
A half century later, Smith’s action is echoed in the silent protests some NFL players are waging at the start of their football games—taking a knee during the National Anthem to make a statement about racial injustice and police killing unarmed black men. Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick was the first player to take a knee and sacrificed his football career as a result.
Designed to connect the past and present, “Bridge” was created with casts of Smith’s arm. The sculpture is featured in “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino & Tommie Smith,” the result of a multiyear collaboration between the artist and athlete, the exhibition explores Smith’s story, the intersection of sports and politics, and the power of protest.
The High Museum exhibition includes sculptural installations, drawings, a documentary about Smith, who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., and objects and ephemera from his archives.
“The image of Tommie’s silent protest on the victory stand has become an iconic symbol of resistance and unity for generations. Our goal with this project is to ensure that Tommie’s message resonates for years to come,” said Kaino.
IN PHILADELPHIA, an enormous Afro pick with a clenched fist on the handle was installed in Thomas Paine Plaza across from City Hall last year. Composed of aluminum and steel, “All Power to All People” (2017) by Hank Willis Thomas stands more than eight feet tall.
Thomas’s Afro pick sculpture was part of Monument Lab: Philadelphia (2017), a citywide project organized by Monument Lab, a national public art and history initiative based in Philadelphia. In partnership with Mural Arts Philadelphia, Monument Lab worked with 20 artists to place temporary monuments in 10 of the city’s parks and public squares.
“All Power to All People” was sited near a statue of Mayor Frank L. Rizzo (1972-1980) that weeks earlier had been defaced with the spray-painted phrase “Black Power,” according to the Philadelphia Tribune. Given the incident, the timing and proximity of the long-planned installation raised the profile of the public art work.
Thomas said the sculpture “serves to highlight ideas related to community, strength, perseverance, comradeship, and resistance to oppression.”
In the description for the installation, the artist emphasized the historic origins and cultural symbolism of the work. Thomas said: “The origin of the Afro pick dates back to the time of ancient Egyptians as an article of status and cultural belonging. The clenched black fist comb in particular is associated with the 1970s Black Power Movement. As an accessory of a hairstyle, it represented counterculture and civil rights during one of the most important eras of American history. It exists today as many things to different people; it is worn as adornment, a political emblem, and signature of collective identity. The Afro pick continues to develop itself as a testament to innovation. This piece serves to highlight ideas related to community, strength, perseverance, comradeship, and resistance to oppression.”
Earlier this month, The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) announced nine acquisitions, including Thomas’s Afro pick. Brooke Davis Anderson, director of the museum at PAFA, told the Inquirer the sculpture would go on view at PAFA later this fall. Both indoor and outdoor display options are under consideration.
“Hank Willis Thomas’s ‘All Power to All People’ is a brilliant, meaningful contribution to the public art and history landscape of Philadelphia,” Paul M. Farber, artistic director of Monument Lab, said in a statement. “Thomas’s sculpture was both the talk of the town and a deeply important intervention into the ways we think about racial and gender justice in public monuments. Monument Lab is thrilled to see this monumental artwork have a permanent home at PAFA.”
COMPOSED OF MAHOGANY WOOD, Elizabeth Catlett’s “Black Unity” (1968) is a striking work of art. One side of the sculpture depicts a clenched fist. Two peaceful visages are carved in the style of African masks on the reverse. The faces and the fist, two seemingly opposing images, symbolize both quiet strength and defiant resolve.
“Black Unity” is featured in “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power” at the Brooklyn Museum. Spanning 1963-1983, the exhibition features more than 150 works by about 60 artists, who sought to make work during the politically potent period that was both formally and materially complex and spoke to their experiences as African Americans.
“Art: African-American,” the 1978 book by Samella Lewis quotes Catlett speaking about her work in general. She said: “Art must be realistic for me, whether sculpture or printmaking. I have always wanted my art to service Black people—to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.”
The artist continued: “It might not win prizes and it might not get into museums, but we ought to stop thinking that way, just like we stopped thinking that we had to have straight hair. We ought to stop thinking we have to do the art of other people.”
“Black Unity” appeared on the cover of the November 2017 issue of Artforum magazine, illustrating a review of “Soul of a Nation” when it was on view in London at the Tate Modern. The exhibition made its U.S. debut at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art earlier this year. “Black Unity” is in the collection of the Crystal Bridges museum, which acquired the sculpture in 2014.
When Catlett created “Black Unity” she was responding to the same climate as Smith. She made the sculpture in 1968, the year he raised his fist at the Olympics.
“In terms of doing the righteous thing or the right thing, there’s no way I could do it any differently or even any better than I did then,” Smith, 74, told The Associated Press in a recent interview, in advance of the exhibition opening.
“There may be no other event in the 20th century that so powerfully speaks to our present moment of confrontation with the endemic racism and inequality that persist in society today,” said Michael Rooks, the High Museum’s curator of modern and contemporary art. “The combination of Glenn’s activist art and Tommie’s heroic fortitude and resilience in the face of overwhelming adversity amplifies a young generation’s rising call for social justice.” CT
EXHIBITIONS: “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino & Tommie Smith” is on view at the High Museum of Art (Sept. 29, 2018 – Feb. 3, 2019). At the Brooklyn Museum, “Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power”runs through Feb. 3, 2019.