A half-century before NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee, Olympic gold-medal sprinter Tommie Smith raised a fist. Smith made his historic gesture at the 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City to protest human rights abuses around the world and bring international attention to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. His act of protest and its reverberations over the past 50 years are explored in “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith,” an exhibition organized by the High Museum of Art (on view Sept. 29, 2018–Jan. 6, 2019).
The exhibition, which will introduce several new works, is the culmination of a multiyear collaboration between Los Angeles–based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino (American, born 1972) and Smith (American, born 1944), who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga. “With Drawn Arms” will feature sculptural installations and drawings by Kaino and Smith, excerpts from an original documentary about Smith’s life and his collaboration with Kaino (directed by Kaino and Afshin Shahidi), objects from the Tommie Smith Archives, and a series of drawings contributed by students from across the United States. By bridging the past and present, the exhibition powerfully resonates in the current moment of reckoning with racial injustice in America.
“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’s Wieland Family 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.”
When they met in 2013, Kaino observed that Smith was living in a “time bubble” centered around his record-setting race and iconic salute. Their meetings inspired sculptural collaborations that allow Smith to symbolically step outside his internal perspective and, in Kaino’s words, “become a witness for the first time to the rich history that he inspired.”
That history and its influence are deconstructed and studied in depth through the exhibition and documentary, which connect Smith’s silent but meaningful gesture to the critical moments and most important voices of today and explore the nature of images, symbols, and symbolic action.
“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.
Segments from the documentary film project, excerpted specifically for the exhibition, will be shown in a dedicated gallery at timed intervals. Visionary artist and producer John Legend; his partners Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius; and actor, activist, and humanitarian Jesse Williams serve as executive producers for the film.
Also on view will be Kaino and Smith’s first collaborative sculptural work, “Bridge” (2013). The 100-foot-long serpentine sculpture, made from gold-painted casts of Smith’s arm suspended in the air, represents a path connected to the past that leads forward from the present. The work opens up the salute for a new interpretation, reconciles a historic record and honors the personal memory of Smith’s momentous action.
The exhibition will also feature Kaino’s “19.83” (2013), a steel-and-gold-plated, life-size re-creation of the Olympic medal podium on which Smith stood, presented with related prints and drawings depicting frame-by-frame images of Smith’s race. Also included are altered images that critically examine the language constructed in the July 1968 Newsweek cover that labeled Smith “The Angry Black Athlete,” published months before the Summer Olympic Games.
The exhibition will debut Kaino’s sculpture “Invisible Man (Salute)” (2018), a life-size likeness of Smith with his fist raised, made of blackened aluminum and mirrored stainless steel. From the back, the sculpture is lifelike in its detail of Smith’s tracksuit-clad figure. From the front, Smith’s body becomes a mirrored plane in which visitors see themselves reflected, thus contextualizing each individual’s experience within a continuum of history since 1968.
To further connect Smith’s historic gesture to the present day, Smith and Kaino hosted drawing workshops at American University (Washington, D.C.), Creekside High School (Fulton County, Georgia), and the San José Museum of Art (San José, California), where student collaborators learned about the history of Smith’s salute and drew individual frames from his race. Those drawings will debut in the exhibition.
“With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith” will be presented on the lobby and second levels of the High’s Anne Cox Chambers Wing.