People are Strange (Especially When it Comes to Statues)

Lauryn Ellis
5 min readMar 24, 2023

I am late to the party on the newest Martin Luther King statue, because I make it a point to ignore my Google newsfeed these days as much as possible. I didn’t think much of the headlines I did see, because I was certain that they were little more than notches in the belt of the ongoing culture war that America can never seem to find its way out of. When I finally did open one, I discovered I wasn’t totally wrong.

The Embrace is the latest work by Hank Willis Thomas. Thomas, a former photographer, has said he was inspired by a photo of Dr. King and Coretta Scott King taken in 1964 after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize. The 20-foot tall statue can be found in Boston Common, where it is likely to live for the foreseeable future.

It’s been called many things, but “lewd” seems to be a common thread amongst its critics. Some said it resembles a penis from certain angles or that it looks like a sex act. Others call it aesthetically unpleasant, and disrespectful to Dr. King’s memory. Even family members of the Kings were divided. Coretta Scott King’s cousin called it an insult to the black community and masturbatory in nature, while Martin Luther King III called it a representation of bringing people together. (citation — CNN)

Statues are strange things. At one point they served a practical purpose, preserving the images of the powerful for posterity. The Romans and the Greeks created statues of their gods and their statesmen, a tradition which the West has continued into modern day. In Washington D.C., the National Statuary Hall inside the Capitol recognizes prominent Americans from each state in the country from politicians, activists, religious figures, to Amelia Earhart. Each state is represented by two statues, and I would be curious to know, on average, how many people in each state know who represents them in the Hall. Maybe I’m wrong, but I would bet good money that the average Nevadan they would have no idea who Sarah Hopkins Winnemucca is. I can attest from personal experience that I had no idea who Pat McCarran was (the other figure representing Nevada in the Hall) until I was an adult — and we had an airport named after him.

The removal of Confederate statues and monuments throughout the southern United States became a significant political talking point in the wake of the death of George Floyd. These statues, which some would have led you to believe were important earmarks of the country’s history, memorialized people and a time when a significant part of the population were enslaved and viewed as less than human. They claimed keeping the statues out in public were important reminders of history. The fact that these so-called “important” statues were created about 100 years after all the people the statues memorialized were already dead was just an afterthought. Then again, these claims came from states with some of the lowest-ranked public education statistics in the country, so you can’t really blame them.

This also got people all up in their feelings a couple years ago.

But I don’t think there was a bigger fan of the statue in modern times than Vladimir Lenin. During the Soviet Union’s prime, there were over 14,000 statues created of the man and erected all across the USSR. When the Soviet Union became no more, the statues began to come down. Not only were they taken down, they were beheaded. One head was found in a German forest. Another was found inside a closet in a power plant. Until it closed in 2019, the Red Square restaurant inside Mandalay Bay kept their Lenin statue’s head on ice. The destruction of the statues became a metaphor for the fall of the Soviet Union, and for the West’s rejection of Leninism.

The people literally said “Off with his head” over and over and over again.

But back to Dr. King and The Embrace. If the artist’s goal was to get people talking, Thomas was certainly successful. If the goal of creating any statue, Dr. King or not, is to get people talking about the subject of the statue and piquing the people’s interest, he was successful in that regard as well.

One of the questions posed in the plethora of criticisms was — why we can’t get a decent statue of Dr. King. I think that’s subjective, given the number of statues of Dr’. King that there are across the world. And with so many statues of Dr. King already in existence, I imagine any artist wanting to take on a multi-million dollar project (one that I must point out wasn’t paid with tax dollars) like The Embrace had to be looking to do something out of the ordinary.

It also bears mentioning here that out of the 126 submitted proposals for the commemoration, Thomas’ won out.

I can see how people would look at it and think it’s odd on its face; but when you look at the rest of Thomas’ body of work, it suddenly becomes less quirky. Most of Thomas’ installations use arms as subjects, whether it be arms emerging from the ground, spinning basketballs on their fingertips, or arms wrapped in a warm embrace.

Let’s meditate on the idea of an embrace. An embrace is a display of warmth and comfort, a gesture that I think the world could use more of in trying times like the ones we find ourselves in. An embrace is an expression of kindness that doesn’t require words. And foregoing the use of Dr. King’s face in the installation forced Thomas to find another way to convey the spirit and the legacy of Dr. King. I think it’s quite fitting that Thomas chose to do it a universal expression of love.

Art doesn’t have to be traditionally beautiful or overly complicated to be meaningful. Jackson Pollock made his mark on the world in splatters of paint. Andy Warhol made his with colored Campbells soup jars. Hank Willis Thomas is making his in bronze arms. No one said you had to like their work, but I think part of the joy and beauty of art is looking beyond the surface and finding the beauty in its inspiration and the skill that goes into its execution. Statues don’t speak to me in the way they might to others, but I can appreciate the time and the craftmanship, that goes into such an enormous, elaborate, labor of love.

For further reading:

The Art Collection | Architect of the Capitol (aoc.gov)

See the Bizarre Places People Stash Old Lenin Statues (nationalgeographic.com)

MLK statues: Where to find them (ajc.com)

Martin Luther King’s son defends controversial new headless statue — BBC News

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