‘The Embrace’ Martin Luther King sculpture: ‘beautiful monument’ or ‘weirdly sexualised blob’?

Relatives of the civil rights hero and his wife Coretta Scott King are among critics locking horns after $10m artwork unveiled in Boston

The Embrace
The bronze memorial to the Kings is installed on Boston Common, close to where the couple first met
(Image credit: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A $10m sculpture intended to honour Martin Luther King Jr has been branded “obscene” in an escalating war of words between critics and fans of the new artwork.

The 22ft bronze memorial, named The Embrace, was unveiled last week ahead of Martin Luther King Day, the US national holiday that marks his birthday. Designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas, the sculpure was inspired of a famous photograph showing the civil rights hero embracing his wife, Coretta Scott King, and features four intertwined arms that form a heart from one angle.

But not everyone is loving the arty tribute, which sits on Boston Common, “near to where the couple met while studying in the city in the 1950s”, said The Independent.

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A ‘weirdly sexualised bronze blob’...

Unimpressed Twitter users have blasted the scupture as “obscene” and “pornographic looking”. Another online critic, writer Shireen Qudosi, asked why the “beautiful and perfect” original photo had not been honoured “with a replica instead of this horrible odd weirdly sexualized bronze blob”.

Rasheed N. Walters, a columnist at The Boston Globe, agreed that the sculpture was “aesthetically unpleasant”, adding: “What a huge swing and miss in honouring the Dr & Mrs King.”

Seneca Scott, a cousin of late author and activist Scott King, said that while the artwork had inspired “mad jokes” on Twitter, it was “insulting” to his family. In an article for Compact magazine, he wrote: “Ten million dollars were wasted to create a masturbatory metal homage to my legendary family members – one of the all-time greatest American families.”

The sculpture, he continued, was an example of the “woke machine’s callousness and vanity” that showed “progressives” were more interested in virtue signalling than helping “struggling black families”.

“So now Boston has a big bronze penis statue that’s supposed to represent black love at its purest and most devotional. This is no accident. The woke algorithm is racist and classist.”

... or ‘beautiful monument’?

The sculpture “doesn’t translate well in a single photo”, conceded an online fan of the controversial artwork, but a “single angle view doesn’t capture” the “beautiful concept” behind it.

Culture writer Emily Watkins argued on the i news site that while the widespread criticism of The Embrace was “damning”, the key issue “plaguing” the piece was a “disconnect between idea and execution”.

The row, she said, “arguably boils down to a deceptively simple question: how do you represent an abstract idea with a physical object?” Questions about how to depict love, or “justice or integrity, legacy or determination”, can be “tricky enough” to answer in galleries and artistic spaces, but “nowhere is the task of making the transcendental tangible more troubled” than in public spaces.

The new addition to Boston Common has been praised by the Kings’s son, however. Martin Luther King III, who attended the unveiling last Friday, said that the “beautiful monument” was a fitting symbol of his parents’ “powerful contribution to the black freedom struggle.”

“This work is really about the capacity for each of us to be enveloped in love, and I feel enveloped in love every time I hear the names and see the faces of Dr King and Coretta Scott King,” he told The Boston Globe.

Despite the ongoing row, artist Willis Thomas insisted that he was just grateful to have had the chance to create the sculpture, created in collaboration with Boston-based firm Mass Design Group. The design was selected from more than 125 submissions to a 2019 competition sponsored by local nonprofit organisation Embrace Boston.

“You never wake up and think you’d be able to contribute meaningfully to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King,” Thomas told The New York Times. “And that alone, the fact that I was able to be a part of that, is just humbling and dumbfounding.”

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