Placed in the centre of the wunderkammer, the sculpture Untitled (Hero/Slave) by the English artist Jamie SHOVLIN (°1978), consists of six elements placed on a white base; two pairs of feet and two gloved fists, one half in red wax, the other half in blue wax.
The sculpture refers to the African-American athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who won gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200 metres at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, with Smith setting a world record.
Both are known to have performed one of the greatest protests in Olympic history: when the American national anthem, the Star-Spangled Banner, was played during the medal ceremony, both athletes stood on the podium in black socks, staring at the ground and raising a black-gloved fist. Smith also wore a black scarf around his neck and Carlos a necklace in reference to the lynchings that have plagued the black population of the American South for decades. The decision to take off their shoes was a way of denouncing the persistent poverty of their people and the gloved fists, the strength and unity of black people. Their protest was assimilated into the Black Panther movement but they were never part of it. Their action was part of the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR), a group that proposed a boycott of the Olympic Games by African-American athletes until their civil rights were respected.
Footage of the moment went viral. The athletes were booed by the audience as they left the podium and were expelled from the Games. The subtitle (Hero/Slave) comes from this banner visible in the audience "WHY BE A HERO IN MEXICO AND A SLAVE AT HOME? “ Why be a hero in Mexico City and a slave at home?" and underlines all the ambiguity of these events and what followed (expulsion from the Olympic village and the American federation, death threats in the USA,...).
Jamie Shovlin's work refers to this protest by using the colours of the American flag (red, blue, white) and by positioning the wax casts on a base reminiscent of a podium step (an allusion to certain works by the American artists Bruce Nauman and Robert Gober should also be noted). By placing it in this way, the work becomes a sort of monument that echoes the very notions that Smith and Carlos wanted to highlight on that day in October 1968: slavery (bound feet and fists), discrimination (limbs of a different colour), the non-recognition of an identity (evocation of the human without using the face), murder or even the mass grave (severed limbs entangled), etc. In general, a monument is closely related to the nature of what it is intended to commemorate. This is the case here, but this work goes beyond the mere commemoration of the events of 1968. This sculpture commemorates the courageous action of these two men and at the same time denounces all oppression in a rather radical way.
Jamie Shovlin is generally interested in the great myths that have shaped or are still shaping American society. With this play, he
highlights the resistance of oppressed men and the ongoing racial problems in the United States.