The exhibit of Glenn Kaino’s work, “With Drawn Arms,” includes his sculpture "Bridge," made of painted casts of Tommie Smith's arm. The exhibit by Kaino, a conceptual artist from Los Angeles, brings to life the one-armed salute by the sprinter at the Olympic Games in Mexico City in 1968. (Kevin D. Liles/The New York Times)
Photo: KEVIN D. LILES/NYT
Photo: KEVIN D. LILES/NYT

Sports, Tommie Smith and racial injustice 

Fifty years ago Olympic sprinter Tommie Smith raised a fist to the sky and shook the world.

That iconic protest against racial injustice has never stopped reverberating.

This week the issue of sports and protest is back in the news as the nation’s biggest football game takes place in Atlanta.

The NFL continues to answer questions about its treatment of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose silent protest during the National Anthem inspired similar gestures from other football players and triggered angry criticism from President Donald Trump.

Viewers will debate the place of protest during the game. But none will experience it with the same sense of history as Smith, a Stone Mountain resident who will see the Super Bowl played in his own back yard.

Also in Smith’s back yard is “With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith,” a multimedia installation at the High Museum of Art that examines Smith’s journey, from gold medal winning athlete, to pariah, to role model.

The exhibit remains on display until Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 3.

In this Oct. 16, 1968, file photo, extending gloved hands skyward in racial protest, U.S. athletes Tommie Smith, center, and John Carlos stare downward during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" after Smith received the gold and Carlos the bronze medal in the 200 meter run at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. (AP Photo/File)
Photo: HANDOUT/AP

Los Angeles-based conceptual artist Glenn Kaino created the exhibit during the course of assembling a documentary film on Smith.

His goal, according to Michael Rooks, curator of modern and contemporary art at the High, was to puff some three dimensionality back into the figure of Smith.

“In Glenn’s words, he saw the project as a way of dimensionalizing Tommie and unflattening him from that photo that we all know,” said Rooks.

Kaino wanted to show “who he is, why he did what he did, how it impacted his life and our lives.”

The show includes an excerpt from the film, which is still incomplete. It also includes an outdoor sculpture on the Sifly Piazza called “Invisible Man: Tommie Smith,” a silhouette of Smith, with arm raised, cut out of a mirrored material. While examining that piece, the viewers can see themselves inside Smith’s outline.

The most dramatic element in the show is a 100-foot serpentine bridge, made from multiple casts of Smith’s arm, painted gold and suspended from wires. 

The gesture, from Smith and fellow sprinter John Carlos, was widely interpreted at the time as a symbol of “Black power.”

But Smith told the Smithsonian it was, instead, “a cry for freedom and for human rights.”

“With Drawn Arms: Glenn Kaino and Tommie Smith”

Through Feb. 3. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $14.50, ages 6 and above; free for children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, high.org.

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