What should our monuments of the future look like?


Hank Willis Thomas for CNN 


Monuments are critical tools in shaping the values and identity of society. Most of what we know about many ancient cultures -- Egypt, Great Zimbabwe, Greece, Rome -- are through public monuments. So we have to imagine that much of what future generations will know about us is through the monuments we choose to put up and preserve. There isn't that much public space dedicated to contemplation. Many of the images and objects we see outside are advertisements that are directing us to buy something rather than asking us to reflect on something.


In two of the public sculptures that I've created, "Unity," of an arm pointing skyward, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City; and the forthcoming work, "The Embrace," a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King, in Boston, I referenced incredibly common gestures that personify all of us. 

With "Unity," my studio and I took a scan of the arm of an African immigrant athlete, Joel Embiid. There's poetry and a potency to a 22.5-foot-tall bronze arm of an immigrant pointing to the sky, echoing the gesture of the city's most famous monument, the Statue of Liberty. I hope it has a depth to it that will take greater meaning over time.


At their best, monuments become a locus -- a point around which people can gather and commune. I think many of the best public monuments we have in the United States are our rallying points. I went to high school in Washington D.C. and I remember being able to walk up to the Lincoln Memorial at one in the morning. I also grew up in New York City and my friends and I would meet up by "Alamo," -- a sculpture also known as "The Cube," in Astor Place, which has become a space to congregate since it was created in the 1960s.