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Artist Glenn Kaino recently launched a Kickstarter campaign with Olympian Tommie Smith. The two are looking to fund the collaborative aspect of the exhibition, “With Drawn Arms,” which opens at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta on September 29, 2018. Smith is known for the powerful gesture of raising his fist on the podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. He and Kaino are going on a multi-city tour to engage at the local level in conversations around social justice and equality. Partnering with museums at each stop, Kaino and Smith will host workshops where young people will participate in a group drawing project.
Whitewall spoke with Kaino about the ongoing campaign (learn more about it here), meeting Smith, and how Smith’s famous salute is a rallying cry for human rights.
WHITEWALL: “With Drawn Arms” aims to introduce Tommie Smith’s silent protest at the 1968 Games to a new generation. What was your first understanding of the image? How and when did you initially connect to the iconic photograph?
GLENN KAINO: My first introduction to the image of Tommie Smith was as a child, learning about the protest-era of the 1960s in school and in pop-culture references. It was defiant and stood out from the flower power aesthetic of resistance. In college, studying art and the power and importance of image making, I rediscovered it as the iconic symbol it had grown to mean. In the context of my practice, that image had often been one of the conceptual reference points for inspiration and understanding.
WW: This exhibition is a collaboration with Tommie Smith. When did the two of you first meet? How did that evolve into working together on “With Drawn Arms?”
GK: I had a picture of Tommie taped to my computer in my studio and a friend of mine walked in, saw the picture and said, “Coach Smith! Wanna meet him?” I immediately recognized that “Coach” was a very familiar term to use, so I became curious and quickly said, “Yes!” He texted someone, who turned out to be Delois Smith, Tommie’s wife, and then two minutes later said to me, “They want to meet you!”
We flew out to Atlanta that weekend and Tommie graciously greeted me at the door and shook my hand. He sat me down on his couch and played a recording of the race and narrated it to me as we watched. It was amazing. Almost exactly an hour in, his wife Delois cut him off and asked me very directly why I was there. “Tommie will talk all night long if you let him,” she said. I answered that I was a conceptual artist and wasn’t there to “pitch” an idea but I did have an observation. It struck me that they were in a time bubble, living inside of a snapshot of a memory. I told them that I was born after the salute, so for me, it has always been symbolic but for them, there was clearly a vivid memory. Tommie had just shaken my hand with that hand, he ostensibly brushed his teeth with that hand, but for the rest of us, that hand is perpetually raised in the air.
There seemed to be an interesting gap between the way history has recorded that event and the way he remembered it. I asked if they would be interested if we could create an artwork that operated in the present, allowing them to be a sort of spectator, or witness, for the first time in the rich history he has created for us all. They said “Sure, what’s next.” I told them that the next step was for me to take the arm off his body (initially met with “Whoa, whoa”) but I explained I was intending on making a cast of his arm.
After we made a positive from the cast, it sat in the studio and I experimented and crafted with several models. The idea of a bridge had such a powerful resonance that it became the sculpture we had to make. At first I couldn’t afford to make a big one so we started with shorter lengths and exhibited them in Chicago and in New York, and generated enough support to create the biggest one in Washington D.C. During the formation of that monumental sculpture, we made drawings, prints and other sculptural works. With Drawn Arms is the culmination of a multi-year project that we plan on launching on the 50th anniversary of his historic action.
WW: The exhibition will include Bridge from 2013. What was Smith’s reaction to it?
GK: When Tommie and I first walked into the Bridge exhibition it was a few hours before the opening. It was a profound moment of gratitude for both of us. Tommie seemed very moved and I know that I was proud to play a role in supporting him and everything that he represents.
WW: The show also includes a film and artifacts. What are some objects of note you’re excited to share with audiences?
GK: The film project is exciting in that it tells the story of Tommie’s past and present, connecting his work to the vital work being down by people across the globe. We are planning to show several important historic artifacts from Tommie’s collection, including his gold medal and more. He recently contributed his shoes to the new National Museum of African American History!
WW: You and Tommie will be traveling around the country hosting weekend workshops. What kind of engagement do you want to create from these workshops?
GK: Our intention is to connect to young people and to have a fun, meaningful and productive conversation with them about the role they might play in helping further challenging ideas, to teach them that while it might seem hard, it isn’t always as hard as you might think.
Drawing is a scary thing for most people—if you were to go into a random public space and ask everyone to draw, a large majority would say the exact phrase “I can’t draw.” Well, they actually can draw, but are afraid to. Usually their concern is that they can’t render things realistically. Technical drawing skills are not what concerns us for this project. Primarily, we are interested in building the confidence in people to express themselves. This started really when we had Tommie over to the studio and began to teach him how to draw. He got into it quickly and we couldn’t get him to stop! And when I started to make drawings of some of his old photographs, the stories he told about all the details were priceless. In the process of holding these workshops we won’t be trying to make artworks, we’ll be trying to make memories.
WW: How do you hope the collective action of drawing film frames from the historic race will inspire a new generation of Tommie Smiths?
GK: The goal is to recreate the images of the race and the salute from the hands of hundreds of diverse contributors, in the process transcoding it from a old-timey video to a new animation with the inclusion of their gestures. We think it will be a beautiful thing to watch, in a format that will be seductive for young people while being provocative in the process. One of Tommie’s main ideas that he speaks often about but that is also often overlooked is that while civil rights scholars have primarily assigned his gesture specifically to the struggle of Black Americans, and for him that certainly was key, he also believes that his mission in creating that symbol was as a symbol of unity. Tommie’s salute is a rallying cry for human rights, to be used by all humans fighting against inequality and injustice.