King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream) by Jack Whitten

Jack Whitten

King’s Wish (Martin Luther’s Dream), 1968, Oil on canvas, 172.4 x 131.4 cm, Collection of the artist, © Courtesy the Jack Whitten Estate and Hauser & Wirth; Photo: John Berens

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I Have a Dream

Commentary by

Perhaps one of the most famous lines from all the prophets comes from Amos 5:24: ‘But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’.

Amos’s words come in the midst of his indictment of an unfaithful and unjust Israel. The northern kingdom in which Amos preaches has created a society in which God’s commands to care for all people have been ignored. Instead, a wealth gap and a misremembering of God’s commands pervade Israel’s society.

Martin Luther King Jr. echoed Amos’s admonition in his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and quoted the prophet in his ‘Letter from Birmingham Jail,’ recalling God’s commands to create societies that promote justice and care, and calling all people of the modern world to action.

In this painting, African American artist Jack Whitten responds to King’s speech with a brilliant and bold illumination of that dream. Each face that emerges from the abstract colourful surface of his canvas powerfully asserts itself in the context of the whole, its identity pronounced not by virtue of race alone, but in relationship to the whole composition and to one another.

The simultaneous chaos and beauty of this image reveals a central aspect of the prophetic promise and works powerfully on the emotions of the viewer. It is raw and material, even while it expresses a profound spiritual reality through its entrancingly bright palette. Amos speaks of justice in the mess of society, while the wild brushstrokes of Whitten suggest that in the mess of it all, there is still hope to be found. His image evokes a garden of colour, an Edenic space of promise that embodies the dream of justice.