The recent buzz about Colin Kaepernick’s sports activism and his Nike ad campaign brings to mind Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith’s infamous Black Power salute. On the winners’ podium at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, he and bronze medalist John Carlos each raised their black-gloved fists during the playing of the national anthem. Though the act unleashed a firestorm of controversy, the resulting image was later reproduced and immortalized as one of the most defiant symbols of black power at the apex of the civil rights movement.
That moment also burned its imprint into the mind of L.A.-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino. He traveled to Atlanta in 2012 to meet his hero Tommie Smith and shake the hand that made history. Smith told him that, for the past 49 years, the public has had the wrong interpretation of his symbolic gesture. Kaino recalled the iconic athlete telling him: “You can call it black power if it fits you, call it a black fist in the air if it fits you. You call it whatever you want but I know why I did it. It meant power, it meant strength, it meant togetherness or likeness. All of us, as a nation.”
Kaino continued to explain: “He closed his eyes and bowed his head to project to the world that it was a prayer. He turned 90 degrees to the right in an ROTC move to show them that he was a patriot, that he had a military background. He wore black socks to signify poverty, but also because the only sponsor that ever took care of him was Puma. And he held his Pumas up there as a gesture of gratitude. These are things that people didn’t read because they were so caught up in the one sense of defiance that it projected.”
Kaino and Smith decided to collaborate on a project called “With Drawn Arms,” a stunning sweep of gold and wire elegantly crafted together to suggest a bridge. Kaino took a cast of Smith’s history-making arm and created hundreds of duplicates in gold, to symbolize his victory. Each arm is suspended by wire and sweeps across a cavernous space, projecting light and harmony. The installment will be on display at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta from Sept. 29 to Feb. 3, 2019.
This article appears in KORE’s October 2018 issue. Subscribe here.