Hank Willis Thomas on How His 10-Foot-Tall Super Bowl Sculpture Stands as a Monument to ‘Higher Goals’
Following Sunday's game, the sculpture will move to the Arizona State University Art Museum.
As nearly 70,000 fans descended on State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona, for Super Bowl LVII on Sunday, they were greeted by a shiny 10-foot-tall public artwork by Hank Willis Thomas, commissioned by the NFL for the occasion.
Titled Opportunity (Reflection), the stainless-steel sculpture features a disembodied arm, hand outstretched to grasp at a football, moments before a successful catch. It’s based on an earlier football-themed work by the artist from 2015, and is part of his “Punctum” series, transforming details from photographs into large-scale sculptures.
“This sculpture is inspired by the hopes, dreams, dedication, and sacrifice of the players who have committed their lives to achieving a dream for the greater good of their families and community,” Thomas told Artnet News in an email.
The artwork’s mirrored surface recalls the Vince Lombardi Trophy, held aloft by the winners of each year’s Super Bowl in celebration of their victory.
“It is impossible to measure how much a professional athlete has given, and what is at stake every time they reach for the ball. The ball is a metaphor [for] the present moment and how we can use it toward moving us in the direction of our higher goals,” he added.
Given Thomas’s longstanding work as an activist artist, working with the NFL might seem like something of a surprising choice. He is the cofounder of the politically minded For Freedoms collective, and recently unveiled a (controversial) monument to civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Boston.
The league, on the other hand, has been widely accused of racism for its handling of U.S. national anthem kneeling protests and subsequent refusal to re-sign Colin Kaepernick. There’s also its former use of race-norming—which assumes Black players start with lower cognitive functioning—to deny Black retirees access to settlement funds for brain damage caused by concussions sustained during gameplay.
Most recently, Brian Flores, a Black head coach, filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against the NFL last month after the New York Giants secretly arranged to hire a white coach days before he was set to interview for the position.
Much was made of Rihanna’s decision to play this year’s Super Bowl halftime show, given her comments when turning down the opportunity in 2019. “I just couldn’t be a sellout,” she said. “There’s things within that organization that I do not agree with at all, and I was not about to go and be of service to them in any way.”
Why Rihanna changed her mind four years later likely has to do with her entertainment agency, Roc Nation, which has a partnership with the NFL for the halftime show.
But for Thomas, who calls himself a “cynical optimist,” creating an artwork for the NFL was a way to support the players who put their bodies on the line in the service of the most popular form of entertainment in the U.S.
“I am more focused on the people who make up the organization and the viewers who make it what it is,” he said. “We all inhabit a multitude of complexities and contradictions. I deeply believe in consciously participating in systems that affect and shape my life. My intention is always to broaden perspective and implicate myself and viewers in addressing entrenched issues that plague our society.”
The artwork debuted earlier this month at the Phoenix Convention Center, which was transformed ahead of the NFL final into an interactive theme park dubbed the Super Bowl Experience.
“Hank’s powerful sculpture showcased during Super Bowl week beautifully represents the passion, strength, and hope at the heart of our game,” Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events, said in a statement.
Following Sunday’s championship game, in which the Kansas City Chiefs defeated the Philadelphia Eagles, 38 to 35, the artwork is moving to the Arizona State University Art Museum as part of the school’s Black History Month celebrations.
There, it will be unveiled on February 15 by museum director Miki Garcia, ASU president Michael Crow, and Steven Tepper, dean of ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts. During the event, Thomas will be in conversation Kelvin Beachum, an offensive tackle for the Arizona Cardinals and an art collector.
“The duality of being an athlete and artist can have its sacrifices to press forward and be the best at what you do,” Beachum said in a statement. “To be both, you have to find ways to allow the strengths to support one another. Hank is one of the best artists historically, and I want to use this platform with the NFL to shine a light on Hank’s work across the globe.”
As part of the commission, Thomas received tickets to Sunday’s game, something that the artist, who has long incorporated sports into his work, found overwhelming.
“I was just in awe of the spectacle,” he said. “Still wrapping my head around the whole thing.”
Hank Willis Thomas’s sculpture Opportunity (Reflection) will be on view at the Arizona State University Art Museum on the Tempe campus, 51 E 10th St, Tempe, Arizona, February 15, 2023–March 2024.
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