The timeless appeal of Tommie Smith, who knew a podium could be a place of protest

What happens when a person begins to forge new symbols, built on the defining symbol of his youth? Kaino, 49, with Smith’s active partnership, has produced several works of art inspired by the 1968 protest – installations and sculptures, and now an Emmy-nominated documentary, “With Drawn Arms” (2020), that Kaino co-directed with Afshin Shahidi, which traces Smith’s evolution in public consciousness from outcast to paragon. Kaino understands the art they create together both as a matter of aesthetics and as a mechanism of restorative justice. A striking example of this work is “19.83 (Reflection)” (2013), a large-scale recreation of the gold-plated Olympic podium; when properly lit, it casts three ghostly reflections on the wall behind it. “Invisible Man (Salute)” (2018), when approached from behind, appears to be a traditional statue of Smith with his fist raised; after taking the tour, however, one is faced with a mirrored front surface, which creates the illusion that the monument has disappeared from view. Both works play with presence and absence, a tribute to how Smith, once banished, defiantly endures.

Kaino admits that he knew Smith “first as a symbol”. After learning about Smith and Carlos’ demonstration in high school, Kaino grabbed their act as an example of the kind of impact – and the kind of artistry – he hoped to have. As Kaino’s career blossomed, he kept a photo of the demo recorded on his iMac. “This symbol, this image works on several levels: emotionally, artistically, politically,” he explains. “And it is my aspiration as an artist that my work also works on many different levels. So this image was the high bar – an unbelievably high bar. “

Kaino hooked up with Smith by chance after a friend and collaborator working in his studio, Michael Jonte, noticed the image and said, in a neutral tone, “Oh, this is Coach Smith.” Smith had coached Jonte on the Santa Monica College track team before moving south to Stone Mountain, Georgia. Soon Jonte and Kaino were on a flight to Atlanta. For Kaino, it was an almost spiritual pilgrimage. He had no precise intention in mind, certainly no vision of what would become of their collaboration and their friendship. “I never meet someone assuming I deserve their story,” Kaino says. Instead, he went “trying to learn his story; to try to win his story.

Smith may not think of himself as an artist (“Glenn makes art,” Smith says, “he has the spirit of it.”), But he thinks so. A child of nine or ten, working in the Californian cotton fields with his family, he was drawn to discarded objects. “Something lying on the ground or hanging from a tree,” he said. “I sometimes wondered how a soda could get this far in the boonies. So I would pick up the can, bring it home, and throw it under the house so that it had a place to stay. Through the collection, he exercised a curatorial eye and an instinct for conservation. He saw the beauty and the dignity of broken things.

Credit…Courtesy of Newsweek

During his years of training his body to achieve world-class speed (at one point he held 11 world records), Smith also exercised his mind. Hearing Smith describe his race preparation and execution, Kaino recognized his own artistic practice. “I will make drawings, but I will imagine the whole thing and then, as we [Kaino and his team] performing them, we bring to life what is already in our head, that we have already imagined, ”says Kaino. This imaginative exercise – whether in athletics or art – is the foundation of the couple’s shared partnership. “He understands me,” Smith says of Kaino. “I can tell him something and he will take it and improve it. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a fun job. It’s like training to compete.

NINETEEN SIXTY-EIGHT has been an overwhelming year in America. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April; Bobby Kennedy, in June. Abroad, 17,000 American soldiers, many of them blacks and brunettes, died in Vietnam; at home, the anti-war movement surged, culminating in violent clashes with law enforcement in Chicago during the August Democratic convention; segregationist George Wallace, a third party candidate, was in the 20% nationwide polls in September and would win five southern states in the general election; and the Mexico City Summer Olympics, pushed into the fall by the heat, were already called, in the words of a September 30 Sports Illustrated cover story, “The Olympic Problems.”

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About Douglas Mackenzie

Douglas Mackenzie

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