Why Brooklyn’s newest public-art statue makes some think of ISIS
What’s the point?
A new public sculpture in Downtown Brooklyn of a massive arm with the index finger pointed skyward is drawing a wide range of interpretations as to its meaning — with some observers even noting its similarity to an infamous ISIS gesture.
The towering bronze piece, called “Unity,” was funded by the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and lowered by crane on Saturday to a median at the intersection of Tillary and Adams streets on the approach to the Brooklyn Bridge.
“The 22.5 foot sculpture echoes the Statue of Liberty’s iconic gesture & captures the unique spirit of Brooklyn as a place of uplift & ambition,” the agency wrote in a tweet about the unveiling.
But Todd Fine, a city preservation activist, noted that the work bears a striking resemblance to an Islamic hand gesture for the concept of Tawhid — the oneness of God — which has been co-opted as a signal by international terror group ISIS.
“Given the sculpture’s title and design, viewers will inevitably see the Muslim gesture representing Tawhid and the unity of God,” said Fine of the $284,000, publicly-funded sculpture. “This gesture became a core propaganda symbol for ISIS, but it has roots that are much deeper in Islam and monotheistic religion.”
New Yorkers taking in the work on Sunday, however, had far more innocent interpretations of the larger-than-life limb.
“[It] looks like a sports statue,” said Joel Shapiro, 66. “Like we are number one. Seems positive, at least.”
Netta Crawford, 32, opined that it was a symbol of Kings County pride, saying, “Maybe [it’s] letting the world know that Brooklyn is number one!”
But Fine wasn’t alone in his belief that the work could conjure images of bloodthirsty ISIS terror fiends.
“There are these various sectarian associations one could make, whether it’s ISIS or the iconography of Michelangelo: the image of God and Adam with their outstretched index fingers,” said Michele Bogart, Professor Emeritus of Social History of Public Art at Stony Brook University.
“Right now [with] the associations with ISIS extremists, I don’t think that’s an ideal kind of association to put in Downtown Brooklyn.”
One person who agreed was Staten Island City Councilman Joe Borelli.
“How can one administration make so many errors on seemingly the most innocuous of tasks?” he asked.
“Seems like it would have been a nice spot for a non-controversial Mother Cabrini statue,” the Republican quipped, in reference to another recent questionable call by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Cultural Affairs Department.
A panel led by de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, simply ignored the results of a public poll calling for the installation of a statue of Italian-American and Catholic icon Mother Cabrini.
Actor Chazz Palminteri called McCray a “racist” for the snub and Gov. Andrew Cuomo offered state funds to build the Cabrini monument anyway.
“Unity” was designed by artist Hank Willis Thomas, who raised eyebrows in September when he proposed replacing male sculptures in Central Park — including one of Christopher Columbus — with monuments to women.
“It can be read as we are number one, but also that we are all one,” Thomas told the Brooklyn Paper in 2015, when “Unity” was first proposed.
The local Community Board approved the design by a vote of 22–8.
Both the city and the artist pushed back on the notion that the work had anything to do with ISIS.
“This accusation is completely absurd — is every sports fan who holds up a foam finger an ISIS sympathizer?” asked Cultural Affairs Department spokesman Ryan Max in a statement. “The gesture depicted by this sculpture is a universal sign of uplift and aspiration.”
Added Thomas in an email, “In this work I ask viewers to look up and seek unity.
“Love Overrules,” he added, including a number of photos of varied public figures making similar gestures, including President Trump, NBA star Stephen Curry and Martin Luther King Jr.
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