Creator of Divisive King Monument Builds Sculpture for Super Bowl

A new work by the artist who recently unveiled a much-discussed sculpture of a hug between the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King will be displayed outside the Phoenix-area stadium hosting the upcoming Super Bowl.

The 10-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture by the artist, Hank Willis Thomas, shows an unidentified player’s extended arm reaching to catch a football. Titled “Opportunity (reflection),” it draws inspiration from his 2015 sculpture “Opportunity.”

“The ball is a metaphor for the present moment and what we do with it,” Thomas said. “In team sports, it’s all about what the collective does with the present moment toward achieving a goal against sometimes unlikely and unseemly odds.”

The sculpture was commissioned by the N.F.L. and will be displayed outside State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Feb. 12, the day the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs face off in Super Bowl LVII. (Fans can get an earlier view of the sculpture inside the Phoenix Convention Center; the work will later be on loan at the Arizona State University Art Museum.)

In January, Thomas’s 19-ton bronze monument to the Kings — inspired by a photo of the couple after Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 — was criticized and mocked online. Titled “The Embrace” and now a permanent fixture on Boston Common, the memorial features the Kings’ arms and does not show their faces, leading some observers to compare the pose to a sexual act.

Seneca Scott, a cousin of Mrs. King, wrote an essay that described the work as “rather insulting.” But Thomas pointed out that the sculpture was meaningful to the Kings’ descendants, including Yolanda Renee King, the civil rights leader’s granddaughter, who called the work “love 360.” After the backlash, Martin Luther King III said on CNN that he was moved by the depiction of his parents.

“I really felt like if it was just showing their faces, it would really ground in the past,” Thomas said, “where this piece is rooted in the past but is also about the present and with an eye toward the future.”

Thomas, a Brooklyn-based conceptual artist, fused sports and identity into his work before producing “Opportunity (reflection)” for the Super Bowl. That work included “The New Black Aesthetic,” a quilted piece dedicated to basketball greats for last year’s N.B.A. All-Star Weekend, and “The Cotton Bowl,” which depicts a mirror image of a crouching college football player and a sharecropper picking cotton.

And a 22-foot bronze sculpture of an arm, “Unity,” located near the Brooklyn Bridge, echoes his 2015 “Liberty” sculpture, which was inspired by a photo of a Harlem Globetrotter.

Jonathan Beane, senior vice president and chief diversity and inclusion officer for the N.F.L., said that the league was looking to amplify Black voices, and that Thomas’s sculpture encapsulates the different emotions fans experience while watching football.

“When I look at it, I say, ‘It’s also access, it’s also opportunity, it’s also success, it also could be failure, it could be hope, it could be struggle,’” Beane said. “There’s a lot in that image, and that’s what we’re about.”

“Opportunity (reflection)” is part of Thomas’s “Punctum” series, which refers to the photographic theory by the French essayist Roland Barthes that describes how a detail in an image “pricks” or “bruises” a viewer’s subjectivity.

The sculpture’s reflective surface resembles the Vince Lombardi Trophy given to winners of the Super Bowl, and the work will sit adjacent to the encased trophy on game day. Nicki Ewell, the N.F.L.’s senior director of events, says the mirrored surface allows the viewer to step into the scene of either a winning catch or a tough loss.

Thomas welcomes football fans to form their own interpretations of his work.

“You can’t do a monument to love or monument about opportunity that is in some way inspiration or hopeful without also confronting the adverse,” he said.

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