By DOUG MACCASH, The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The gigantic steel sculpture of an Afro hair pick that appeared on St. Charles Avenue in the CBD last weekend is everything a public artwork ought to be.
At 28 feet tall, the sculpture — decorated with a peace sign and topped by a clenched Black Power fist — demands attention and makes a clear statement that pretty much everyone can understand.
The towering piece, titled “All Power to All People” recalls a half-century of the Black Civil Rights Movement, from so-called radicals defiantly raising their fists in the 1960s to Black Lives Matter activists marching in the streets in recent years. And it does so with a whisper of wit, a nod to nostalgia and an evocation of peace.
Artist Hank Willis Thomas, the Brooklyn, New York-based artist who designed “All Power to All People,” was born in 1976. In a recorded statement, he said his grandmother was a hair stylist who “jammed” a pick through his hair to inflate it to the proper proportions. The pick had a Black Power fist on top.
“As a kid,” Thomas said, “I just thought of it as how you comb your hair.” But as he came of age, he recognized that the pick “was an icon of African American culture and history.”
The image of Grandma’s pick stuck in his head.
As an aspiring young artist, Thomas said he encountered, of all things, a four-story-tall clothespin in downtown Philadelphia. The absurd sculpture was by world-famous 1960s pop artist Claes Oldenburg, who created monuments devoted to the most ordinary stuff, like typewriter erasers, shuttlecocks and … clothespins.
Oldenburg’s oversized clothespin stuck in Thomas’ head, too.
A few years back, Thomas blended the pick and the clothespin concepts into a 9-foot preliminary version of his “All Power to All People” design. But it had to be bigger. “It has a different reverence when you have to look up to it or be in the shadow of it,” he said.
The towering “All Power to All People” artwork is part of a traveling exhibit of outdoor sculptures called the “Monumental Tour,” which has had previous stops in Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland and even the Burning Man art fest in Black Rock, Nevada. The arrival of “All Power to All People” in New Orleans was meant to help celebrate the Juneteenth holiday and the upcoming Essence Festival of Culture.
“Monumental Tour” director Marsha Reid said she’s the one who chose the location of the big Afro pick. She said that Lafayette Square was perfect because there was no fence around it, so people had unfettered access, plus the park is frequented by locals instead of tourists, and it’s in the center of city politics, with the modern City Hall and the federal courts not far away.
She didn’t have the old Gallier Hall on her mind when she positioned “All Power to All People,” Reid said. But in ways, Gallier Hall, located across the street, is the perfect backdrop.
The old City Hall was finished in the 1850s. It had doubtlessly been built with slave labor and was a signature piece of architecture of the pro-slavery society of the time. Its neoclassical design venerates ancient Greece and Rome, also slave states.
Which makes it — intentionally or not — a symbolic foil for a sculpture that speaks to the African identity of much of the population.
There’s no erasing the past, of course. But you can certainly have a conversation with it, and that’s just what’s going on down on St. Charles Avenue right now. The city’s picturesque streetcars rumble between the two aspects of history, the unchallenged White rule of the past, and the ongoing striving for Black equity.
In art terms, that dialogue is a beautiful thing.
And that means “All Power to All People” is a beautiful thing, too. On one hand, it’s a smile-evoking selfie-op based on a ridiculously enlarged comb that was popular with a past generation. In a way, it’s comforting.
On the other hand, it’s a spark plug of social issues that’s not supposed to make us comfortable at all. As Picasso supposedly put it, good art “ought to bristle with razor blades.”
Neither City Hall nor Reid would disclose the cost of the “Monumental Tour” project.
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