Culture

1968 Black Power salute: From high emotion to high art

The iconic gesture enters a new kind of history: art history

A view of Glenn Kaino's "Bridge," which was featured in the IN/SITU section of the fair.
Cheri Eisenberg/Courtesy Expo Chicago

CHICAGO — On Oct. 16, 1968, 24-year-old Tommie Smith edged out Australian Peter Norman and American John Carlos in the 200-meter race at the Mexico City Olympics, breaking the world record at the time and winning the gold medal. As the U.S. national anthem played during the medal ceremony, Smith bowed his head and raised his black-gloved right fist in the air, and Carlos, the bronze medalist, did the same with his left fist. The silent gesture against racial discrimination caused a stir at the time, inciting boos from the crowd as Smith and Carlos left the podium, along with a complaint from the International Olympic Committee. That image of the two men with their fists in the air became a symbol for human rights that meant many things: equality, freedom and progress.

More than four decades later, Smith's raised fist is back in the spotlight as the subject of Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino's conceptual work "Bridge," which debuted at Expo Chicago. The art fair ran Sept. 19 through 22 at the city's Navy Pier. Kaino unveiled the piece as a work in progress. It includes 32 gold-painted fiberglass casts of Smith's arm that were suspended from cables attached to the Navy Pier's vaulted ceiling, forming the beginning of a bridge that started at waist level and rose to approximately 25 feet in the air. On Sept. 21, Smith, Kaino and Los Angeles County Museum of Art contemporary curator Franklin Sirmans participated in a talk on Smith's historic gesture and Kaino's tribute, mere feet from the display.

"I find that work like that  that's what art is all about," says Tony Karman, Expo Chicago's president. "It's to inform, to engage, to provoke, and that installation did an extraordinary service to not only Tommie Smith's gesture in 1968 but the need for that gesture in 2013."

Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos performed their Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics.
Universal History Archive/Getty Images

"Bridge" had its genesis when a friend of Kaino's, Michael Jonte, noticed a photograph of Smith and Carlos' iconic salute in the artist's office. "I'm a big student of activism and moments in history where people have the courage to create sacrifice in order to change," says Kaino, whose work has been shown at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and at the Cairo Biennale. Jonte mentioned that Smith had been his coach at Santa Monica College and put Kaino in touch with the former champion. Kaino then flew to Georgia to meet Smith and his wife, Delois. For Kaino, who was born four years after that Black Power salute, that image had always been a moment in history, not a memory of his own. They watched a video of the 1968 race, with Smith narrating each stride. "What I had known to be a symbolic moment was being broken down to me as a memory every step of the way," Kaino says.

Soon afterward, the idea for "Bridge" was born. "That arm changed the world," says Kaino. The artist, who observed that Smith's gesture was stuck in what he called a "time bubble," then posed a question: "What if we could use this grand beautiful conspiracy of art to begin to reframe and refracture that narrative, allowing a platform for this dialogue to continue?"

"I had an idea of what he was talking about," remembers Smith. "But I appreciated the knowledge of him wanting to do something when I didn't know how it was going to be done."

Smith and his wife eventually traveled to Kaino's studio in Los Angeles, where the artist made a cast of the famous  or infamous  arm.

"I have versions of it in wax and different materials," Kaino says, "and again, creating that meditation on connecting, connecting different bodies of knowledge, connecting events from the past to the present  this is Tommie's memory and the cultural history renegotiated in the present."

Curator Shamim M. Momin approached Kaino about exhibiting at Expo Chicago's In/Situ exhibition, and the artist agreed.

Tommie Smith poses by
Tommie Smith poses by "Bridge"
A. Paul Audia/Courtesy Chicago Expo

"This circumstance was perfect because it was about creating an unfinished work in a place where finished things sell and inviting Tommie to come and have a dialogue about history and reality in the context of artifice and transaction and sales  really, about creating a new platform for all this conversation," says Kaino.

Smith is now a public speaker. After the Olympics he played football for the Cincinnati Bengals and later taught sociology and coached track and field, football and basketball at Oberlin College as well as Santa Monica College. His autobiography, "Silent Gesture," was published in 2007. In it he says he feared for his life because of his act on the Olympic victory stand, writing, "My head was bowed, and inside that bowed head I prayed — prayed that the next sound I would hear, in the middle of the Star Spangled Banner, would not be a gunshot."

He saw "Bridge" for the first time just hours before his talk at Expo Chicago. "Once I saw it from a distance, I said, 'My goodness,' and the closer I got, the bigger the emotions got," he remembers.

Kaino plans to use "Bridge" as a platform for addressing everything that Smith's Black Power salute stood for, revealing new segments of the bridge at various art institutions over the next few years. At the moment, there is no deadline for the bridge's completion, nor has he decided how it will be used. Even its functionality — whether or not people will eventually be able to walk on it — is still up in the air. But according to the artist, who intends for the bridge to be a marker of progress, "The anticipation of that is not something that is encouraging to the dialogue. If people know that there's an end date, they're going to be looking forward toward something as opposed to existing in the present."

For Smith, the project is all about young people and, he says, "arming the future with freedom."

Thanks to Kaino, the salute that entered history as a symbol of Black Power in 1968 has found its way into another kind of history: art history. More than 40 years later, this gilded interpretation of the salute will, Kaino hopes, serve to introduce Smith's message and its legacy to new audiences.

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