At first glance, "Unity," a 22-foot bronze sculpture of an arm with an index finger pointing upward, has a seemingly feel-good, noncontroversial theme. The public art piece, which was installed this past weekend at a prominent intersection of Downtown Brooklyn, is reminiscent of the artist Hank Willis Thomas's other sculptures: arms in athletic poses, such as spinning a basketball on a finger, or hands outstretched to catch a football. Overall, giant arms and hands have become something of a trend in public art, with the motif used in works in Rome, Paris and London.
But as a reflection of the unpredictable reception to art, the work—located near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge on the corner of Tillary and Adams Streets—is provoking mixed interpretations from critics and public art observers. The sculpture was commissioned through New York City's Percent for Art program, and at a moment when the city has been in the throes of a highly-scrutinized effort to produce more inclusive public art.
In a press release, the Department of Cultural Affairs said the piece was "meant to connote a myriad of ideas about individual and collective identity, ambition and perseverance, and to serve as a celebration of Brooklyn’s unique character."
On Sunday, a New York Times art critic panned the sculpture, which she noted was originally called "We're No. #1," as "a traditional and fairly conservative work" that traded on sports themes and a history of competition between the boroughs. Citing a statement by the artist that described Brooklyn's spirit as being about "upward mobility and connection to roots," she sarcastically observed, "Perhaps Mr. Thomas is saluting the new Brooklyn—the one of rising property values and more anodyne art."
But Todd Fine, a public art activist and historian who studies Arab American literature, saw something entirely different in Thomas's sculpture. On Saturday, he pointed out on Twitter that a single raised index finger is used by Muslims to represent the concept of Tawhid, which means the unification or oneness of God.
He added that the terrorist group ISIS has co-opted the symbol in recent years, a fact which the New York Post seized on.
In the Post story, Ryan Max, a spokesperson for the city's Cultural Affairs Department, pushed back on the connection to ISIS, saying, “This accusation is completely absurd—is every sports fan who holds up a foam finger an ISIS sympathizer?”
He added: “The gesture depicted by this sculpture is a universal sign of uplift and aspiration.”
Notwithstanding the use of the image by ISIS, Fine later told Gothamist the city should embrace the multicultural connotations of the work, which he argued redeemed it from being simply a sports cliché.
"I think unity of God makes it more meaningful and we shouldn’t shy away from it," he argued.
Hand symbols in art have a history stretching back to ancient Greek and Roman times. During the Italian Rennaissance era, one of the most famous paintings, Raphael's "School of Athens," famously depicts an elderly Plato pointing his finger to the sky. Christian iconography uses a wide repertory of hand gestures with images of Christ as well as saints.
Efforts to reach Thomas were unsuccessful. He has not directly addressed Fine's reading but over the weekend he told WCBS, “All art is up for interpretation and if you see hope or hate, it’s kind of up to you"
The Fort Greene artist, who is best known for his photography, also said his sculpture was inspired by both the Statue of Liberty’s iconic pose and a photo of a basketball player spinning a ball on his finger.
“I thought by removing the basketball, all of a sudden this piece can take totally different interpretations and meanings,” he told the Brooklyn Paper.