It was the morning of October 16th, 1968, and the 200 meter track race had just finished at the Olympic Games in Mexico City. U.S. athlete Tommie Smith placed first with a world-record time of 19.83 seconds. Close behind were Australian Peter Norman and American John Carlos. As the three stood on the podium to receive their medals, Smith and Carlos unexpectedly broke protocol. What happened next shocked the world and helped change a nation.
At the time, it all seemed ad hoc and spontaneous. But, in reality, everything was carefully planned and executed. Smith and Carlos stood shoeless on the podium, with black socks, to represent black poverty. Smith stood straight with his tracksuit fit and proper; Carlos wore his loose and open, standing more relaxed. One represented regiment and discipline; the other, the everyman.
Smith had a black scarf around his neck signifying black pride, while Carlos wore a beaded necklace in memory of the lynched and killed. As the national anthem played, both bowed their heads and held their fists high, Smith and Carlos wearing a single black glove each on alternate hands. Widely interpreted as the Black Power salute during a time of supercharged race relations back in the United States, Smith would later say that, in fact, they had intended it to be a “human rights salute.”
The gesture and the resulting image made front-page news around the world. The reaction was swift. Smith and Carlos were both suspended from the US team and later from the Olympic Games. Both were similarly shunned and threatened after returning home. Norman too was censured for wearing the Olympic Project for Human Rights badge with Smith and Carlos, in support of their ideals.
An Unexpected Impact
Half a world away on the Portuguese island of Madeira, Ricardo Gouveia was only two years old when the events in Mexico City were unfolding. Later though, through the mid-1970s, Gouveia was there to serve witness to Portugal’s own reawakening, as the nation grappled with the legacy of being one of the first European countries to colonize in Africa, and subsequently, being one of the last to withdraw. Coming of age during this idealistic period left indelible impressions on the young Gouveia.
Becoming an artist, Gouveia eventually moved to San Francisco, where he earned a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and an MFA from Stanford University. As a muralist and painter, Gouveia adopted the moniker Rigo 23 (informally, just Rigo), and quickly became known for his effective blending of human and political rights advocacy with powerful, large-scale Pop Art sensibilities.
From creating wall-sized canvases that explore past and contemporary relations with Native American cultures to working with artisans in coastal communities in southeastern Brazil to produce replicas of contemporary weapons of mass destruction, Rigo constantly looks for invigorating and challenging ways to examine and recontextualize social and environmental issues.
Which made it all the more fitting that he would come to be directly connected with one of the most famous single political gestures in the twentieth century.
The Story of the Statue
The story begins in the late summer of 2003 when, after having returned from a routine trip to Portugal, Rigo found a letter from San Jose State University buried deep among an otherwise unremarkable stack of junk mail. Inside the envelope was a call for applications for a memorial that the university was planning to create to commemorate the fateful events of the 1968 Olympics.
Initiated by Erik Grotz of the Associated Students of San Jose State University, the original idea according to Rigo was to honor Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both former students, along with the notion of student activism. Because of earlier work related to the Black Panther Party and the Black Power Movement, Rigo was more than interested. There was just one problem: the deadline for the application was three days away.
“So I called them,” recalled Rigo, “and the person who answered the phone was Alfonso De Alba, the executive director of the Associated Students at the time.” After telling his story, Rigo explained that he couldn’t possibly put an application together that quickly. What happened next was the first of a series of special and remarkable events. “He told me that a good idea is good idea even if it’s scribbled on a napkin, which was a very kind and beautiful thing to say,” remembered Rigo.
So out came the proverbial napkin. After careful consideration, Rigo realized that there was no way he could reinvent such a perfect performative experience. “I mean you’re not going to create a bicycle to pay tribute to a car,” he explained. “My idea was to recreate exactly what they did.”
Come Friday and the deadline, Rigo found himself on a jammed freeway in a part of the Bay Area that he knew little about. “It was 4:45pm and somehow I got off the freeway too soon,” he recalled. “Running and sweaty, I handed them the manila envelope just before 5pm.” His instincts proved correct: a few weeks later, Rigo was awarded the commission and so began a two-year process.
A visual artist by training and practice, Rigo now cheerfully admits what he says was his “lack of qualifications as a proper sculptor.” Eager to begin though, he started by creating a maquette using a couple of Marvel Daredevil action figures purchased from Toys “R” Us, stylized using Elmer’s glue and sand. Rigo further gained confidence after meeting Smith and Carlos, with Carlos reassuring him that there were higher designs at play, saying “Listen, you don’t have to worry. It wasn’t you who decided that you were going to do this. You’re all right.”
Carlos also made sure to keep Rigo on his toes. Laughing, Rigo tells the story of how Carlos took him aside and playfully noted that “my mother thinks I’m beautiful, my wife thinks I’m beautiful, and I think I’m beautiful. So, whatever you do, I don’t want to see an average looking man up there.”
A problem remained though. How was a painter going to create a sculpture? The answer came to Rigo while reading an article about Halle Berry being fitted for her skin-tight outfit in the movie Catwoman. Rigo decided to use the same Hollywood-based company to complete three-dimensional laser scans of Smith and Carlos, not unlike what had been done with Berry. Working further with an LA-based forensics artist completed the work, and the results were spectacular. Smith and Carlos were back in form as the world-class athletes they were from over 30 years ago.
But with one small change. “Tommie Smith recalled that he was praying while on the podium with the anthem playing,” noted Rigo. “He told me that he was convinced that he was going to be shot, so he asked if I could lower his eyelids. He wanted people to realize that, at that moment, he was looking inwards. So that’s what I did.”
Stylistically, Rigo drew inspiration from a wide range of sources. “I had been in Thailand sometime before, and I love the Asian tradition of including color in sculpture,” explained Rigo. “I also drew inspiration from the Watts Tower in Los Angeles. So in both cases, I was pushing it into a kind of spiritual realm.” The decision to use ceramic tiles and make Smith and Carlos twice life size (eight times by volume) also contributes to the powerful effect when seeing the statue in person.
But perhaps the most significant decision was what to do with the extra spot on the podium. Back in 1968, Australian Peter Norman had stood in quiet solidarity with Smith and Carlos and deserved to be recognized. In a move of sheer brilliance, Rigo decided to leave Norman’s spot empty, marking his presence instead with an engraved inscription that reads: “Fellow Athlete Australian Peter Norman stood here in solidarity. Take a stand.”
And that’s exactly what people do. Walk by the statue at any time of the day and you’re likely to see someone perched in Norman’s place with a friend or relative snapping a photo. Equally likely is that you will hear friends sharing the story or parents telling their children about why Norman’s place is empty.
Rigo continues to maintain utmost respect for both Smith and Carlos though, as Rigo notes, they have very different personalities. Because of their actions, to many observers, they have seemed like twin brothers. “But in reality, they were actually fierce competitors, both trying to outdo each other,” explained Rigo. “And they keep that attitude to this day, which is really wonderful.”
“You have to remember that these were 23 and 24-year-old young men, both African-American students, both among the fastest in the world, both the best at what they did,” marveled Rigo. “And they picked the biggest stage in the world, the medal ceremony of the Olympic Games, to make their point. They had amazing sophistication, and excelled on so many levels. It’s truly mind-boggling.”
It’s clear too that Rigo understands the power of a single gesture, as embodied in his now-classic statue that will surely stimulate consideration and discussion many generations into the future. Of his part though, Rigo remains modest. “To this day, I just have an incredible feeling of gratitude of having been able to participate in a little bit of this history.”
More About Rigo 23
Rigo 23’s paintings and murals appear throughout the Bay Area, including the famous “One Tree” mural on the corner of Bryant St & 10th St. in San Francisco. Rigo 23’s work is also currently on view as part of the Fertile Ground: Art and Community in California exhibition at the Oakland Museum of California, on display until April 12, 2015.
Rigo 23 is represented by Gallery Paule Anglim in San Francisco.