Mural Arts Philadelphia added its own wrinkle to the Frank Rizzo statue controversy Tuesday, unveiling a provocative piece of public art on Thomas Paine Plaza at the Municipal Services Building across from City Hall: a 12-foot Pop Art Afro pick topped by a handle that looks like a Black Power fist.
The temporary installation, by sculptor and multimedia artist Hank Willis Thomas, sits at the southeast corner of the plaza, well apart from the Rizzo piece, but they are within sight of each other.
So now when you visit the plaza you’ll not only see Rizzo’s smiling face and outstretched arm, but also will see him twinned with a symbol of black culture and of the Black Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s, the period during which Rizzo had his tenure as police commissioner (1968 to 1971) and mayor (1972 to 1980).
Titled All Power to All People, Thomas’ statue is the opening salvo of Mural Arts’ inaugural Monument Lab, a provocative celebration of monuments and public art that will feature installations by 20 artists across the city. The fest will officially open on Saturday and run through Nov. 19.
The placement of Thomas’ statue is noteworthy in light of the ongoing controversy over the Rizzo statue. The heated debate flared up again last month when vandals spray-painted the phrase “Black Power” on Rizzo’s statue.
“The central guiding principle of Monument Lab is the question, ‘What is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?’ ” said Mural Arts founder Jane Golden. “That’s the question our curators asked all the artists who submitted proposals last year, and the question they also asked Hank.”
Golden said she hopes All Power to All People provides a counterbalance to the Rizzo statue and will hopefully open a dialogue between them.
As the Thomas statue was unveiled, several passers-by noted that the piece would be more effective if it were larger, or somehow more imposing. They were disappointed that the Afro pick looked so delicate and seemed so much smaller than the figure of Rizzo, a hulking statue of bronze that stands more than 10 feet high and looks much bigger, placed atop the plaza steps. (While it’s 12 feet long, the Afro pick is installed at an angle and seems far closer to the ground.)
“It should be much bigger if it’s going to stand near that,” said Channa Gaskins, 33, of Oak Lane, pointing at the Rizzo statue.
From a clothespin to a comb
Thomas, 41, a New York artist who spent his childhood in Philadelphia and Washington, has been working on his piece for the better part of a year. He said the Rizzo controversy was nowhere in his mind as he worked on the piece.
“The curators asked me to consider Philadelphia and its history, its people, and its neighborhoods and ask myself how I would commemorate the city in a monument,” said Thomas, who is the son of two noted Philadelphia natives, photographer and New York University scholar Deborah Willis and jazz musician and film producer Henry “Hank” Thomas Sr.
As for the location for its installation?
Thomas and Golden did not originally envision the Afro pick as a companion to the Rizzo statue. The spot was chosen a year ago, before controversy began to swirl this summer about whether the statue of the mayor should be removed.
Thomas did not find out until later that his piece would be twinned with the Rizzo statue. “When they told me the name of the plaza where they were [placing the Afro pick] I honestly had no idea that’s where the Rizzo statue was,” said Thomas.
Public art has been a passion for much of Thomas’ career.
“I have always been drawn to public art,” he said, “and the question of how a city or a nation, how a government sanctions a monument and of how that validates a specific perspective.”
Monuments offer “the official perspective,” he added, “but the official perspective is always changing and it can often be changed by … artists.”
So if not Rizzo, then what did inspire All Power to All People?
Well, Claes Oldenburg’s Clothespin for a start, Thomas said of the giant sculpture at the corner of 15th and Market Streets.
“I think that is definitely a piece I love, and he’s an artist who has been a big influence of mine,” said Thomas.
“This idea [Oldenburg had] of taking up the mundane or ordinary object and giving them monumental value is something that has always been important to me.”
What makes All Power to All People provocative is that object the artist has chosen to lift up into the ether of art is specific to a minority population and specific to a certain era in that community’s fight for recognition, said Thomas.
Push Thomas toward political discourse, and he’ll remind you that his artwork is deeply embedded in his life, not just in ideas.
Pop Art, he said, helped define his experience of the city as a child.
“When you’re a kid and you are driving around the city, what you see are these wonderful things, you see the huge clothespin which is weird and wonderful and of course [Robert Indiana’s] LOVE statue,” said Thomas.
The Afro pick was part of that fabric of childhood images and memories.
“It was one of the first objects I remember pondering as a kid,” said Thomas. “I remember the sneakers strung across telephone lines, and people playing basketball with milk crates nailed to poles, and I remember people walking around with Afro picks with a fist in their hair. I remember realizing this wasn’t a regular comb, it was made specifically to dig deep into wiggly hair, kinky hair, natural hair. To me these were the quotidian objects of North Philly.”
What about that Black Power fist?
“They sold them with handles like that, shaped like the Black Power fist. And as a 4-year-old I was fascinated by it [and asking] ‘Why does it have a fist?’ ”
If the statue of Frank Rizzo represents the Philadelphia that was run by white power brokers, Thomas’ Afro pick is meant to represent the everyday folks who weren’t given much of a voice for most of the city’s history. More specifically, Thomas said, it represents a moment in history when such ideas as Black Power began to gain currency in the wider culture.
“Within the context of monuments [All Power to All People] stands as a symbol for the potency of the tools of the Black Power movement as they related to everyday life, to coiffing with a level of consciousness and of a certain kind of solidarity.”
Of cops and Black Panthers
While Thomas didn’t create All Power to All People with Rizzo in mind, he certainly does have an opinion about the statue.
“The strangest thing about the Rizzo statue is how soon it went up after his tenure as mayor,” he said. “That’s the real issue. You don’t find many people memorialized that soon after they’ve been in power.”
Thomas said people would be making a mistake if they saw his statue as an attack either on Rizzo or the police. “My mother’s father was a Philly cop, and so were two of his brothers,” said Thomas. “My grandfather actually was at the police academy with Rizzo.”
Thomas got a taste of both sides of the Black Power movement. His mother’s family were defined through and through by their identity as police officers, while his father was a member of the Black Panthers, he said.
“The phrase ‘power to all the people’ actually was a mantra of the Black Panther movement,” said Thomas, who said he decries the idea that the movement was racist or antiwhite.
That said, won’t the proximity of the Afro pick and Rizzo suggest some kind of confrontation?
“People tend to be oppositional about these issues, but things are always more complicated than we admit,” said Thomas. “I grew up around cops and my dad was a Black Panther, and we got along.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to better reflect Mural Arts’ timeline while choosing the location of Thomas’ statue.