Hold The Salt

Surreal bronze statue charges into the McNay sculpture garden

Surreal bronze statue charges into the McNay sculpture garden

A bronze statue of a boy riding a snail with a nautilus shell stands 7 feet tall at the McNay Art Museum.
The statue by Hank Willis Thomas references a caricature from nearly 400 years ago. Photo courtesy of the McNay Art Museum

As a culture, we probably have enough statues of men riding horses. Enter: the McNay Art Museum, offering a child on a gigantic snail instead. A large new acquisition called “History of the Conquest,” by Brooklyn-based artist Hank Willis Thomas, now guards the Mays Family Park near the Russell Hill Rogers Sculpture Gateway.

The seven-foot bronze statue appears to have a sense of humor, with absurd proportions and the child in a charging stance, holding an archer’s bow. This piece, however, is about more than whimsy, and even an insightful interpretation by a crane operator in New Orleans, obtained by Nola.com: “He’s riding him a snail,” he said. “He won’t get anywhere fast, but he will get there.”

This sculpture is a dramatically enlarged version of a figurine by Germany’s Jeremias Ritter around 1630, nearly identical in form except some elements of the filigree running up the beast’s shell, the sturdiness of its reins (for good reason), and the pattern of circles on its flesh (which look more modern and abstracted than the original).

Most notably, the original was made to decorate a nautilus shell, which was naturally white, with a figure painted almost entirely black, representing Africa — the origin of the nautilus. The Thomas rendition brightens the child’s red armor and colors his skin with dark bronze that shines in much greater detail in the sun. The original is currently held by the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Harford, Connecticut.

Thomas, himself a Black artist, is said in a press release to have reclaimed the representation of the Black child through this grander artistic gesture. Aside from a more humanized (and human-sized) portrayal of the child, the piece itself is now a monument, rather than the drinking-game vessel to which the original alluded.

“The McNay is committed to expanding its collection of artworks by contemporary artists of color—indoors and outdoors,” said the museum’s head of curatorial affairs, René Paul Barilleaux. “Thanks to very generous support in memory of beloved McNay supporter, Raye B. Foster, we are able to advance that Museum-wide goal with our first work in any medium by Hank Willis Thomas.”

Barilleaux’s statement could imply that the McNay may one day house more work from Thomas, who is best known for works that reference pop culture. Much of his work available online references Black bodies, including a large collection of sports imagery and sculptures of hands.

The grounds of the McNay are always free and open to the public. The Russell Hill Rogers Sculpture Gateway is on the south side of the museum’s campus, leading to the Austin Highway. More information about visiting the museum is available at mcnayart.org.