By Jannette J. Witmyer,
Special to the AFRO

The real beauty of art is that its “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” 

Since folks see things differently, it is meant to stimulate thought and initiate conversations, allowing for the discussion of subjective interpretations, objectively. The bottom line is that people either like a piece of art, or they don’t, for whatever reason. Sometimes, they get a little help in making that decision.

In the case of “The Embrace,” the recently unveiled Hank Willis Thomas bronze sculpture, people have much to say. The sculpture was installed on the Boston Common and is meant to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King. 

Many like it. Many do not. 

It reminds me a lot of peoples’ reactions to “Male/Female,” the 15.5-meter-tall hollow stainless steel sculpture by Jonathan Borofsky, which graces the entranceway to Baltimore’s Penn Station. 

That project was completed in 2004, and folks are still up in arms (pardon the pun). 

Conversations began swirling again, as recently as 2021, when the sculpture was not included in developers’ plans for Penn Station’s upcoming improvement. So, I expect debate about the Thomas piece to go on for a very long time.

Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King embraced each other during a news conference following the announcement that he had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 1964. (Courtesy Corbis/Bettman)

Initially, when I saw ‘The Embrace,’ I didn’t like it – at all. I couldn’t figure out what was going on in the photo of the sculpture I saw, although it was placed along-side a picture of the couple’s embrace on which it is based. After reading the accompanying article, which was laced with negative commentary from a relative, I was convinced that it was just bad art and dismayed that it had been created by such a gifted and highly-respected Black artist.

Then, I saw a second article about the piece that included photos of the sculpture from several angles. The visuals alone changed my feelings about the artwork–that was even before reading the article, which included an explanation of the artist’s intent, and referenced the first relative’s remarks, along with comments from other members of the King family applauding the work.

After looking at “The Embrace” in a different light, from various angles, and with a deeper understanding of the artist’s intent, I like it.

The fact that I like the sculpture now is not important, but what’s clear to me is that I disliked it initially because of the way it was presented– visually and verbally. I took a second look and it was a stark reminder that presentation matters. Things are often seen in the light by which they are depicted, without ever having a chance to get a second look. 

Art and people can be alike in that way.

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Jannette J. Witmyer

Special to the AFRO