Revered to erased after the final score WAG exhibition about Black players in professional sports shows ‘you can teach so many things through good art’
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Of all the striking, large-scale works that compose Esmaa Mohamoud’s landmark solo touring exhibition To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat, on view at the Winnipeg Art Gallery until Oct. 16, Glorious Bones is perhaps the most compelling.
Forty-six repurposed football helmets, covered in vivid African wax prints, are suspended by steel stands — making them look, unsettlingly, like heads on spikes. No matter where you stand in relation to the installation, the helmets are facing you. No one is wearing the helmets. There are only voids behind the face masks. But still: a presence is felt.
This tension between the hyper visible and the invisible is the throughline that links the 13 works that make up To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat. The London, Ont.-born, Toronto-based African-Canadian multidisciplinary artist explores, per the artist statement, “the ways in which Black bodies at once appear — and yet are rendered metaphorically invisible — within the spaces they navigate” through the lens of professional sport, a site where Black bodies are routinely elevated and then exploited for profit and entertainment. Her works are about all the ways in which Black bodies are erased from the industries built upon them. (It’s true in music, too.)
To that end, the exhibition fittingly opens with an excerpt from Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man: “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed everything and anything except me.”
In Heavy Heavy (Hoop Dreams), 2016-2019, 60 white basketballs, in various states of deflation, are arranged in a grid on a black mirror of acrylic. They look cloud-like, but they are actually made out of concrete. The trio of prints that compose 2018’s One of the Boys, meanwhile, looks at the hyper masculinity of pro sport and its thorny relationship to gender and sexuality via the juxtaposition of Victorian ballgowns topped with repurposed basketball jerseys, worn by androgynous models. The 2019 works of the same name are sculptures of the basketball jersey dresses — replete with shoelace corsets — one in white and one black, the gowns’ full velvet skirts pooling on the ground. As with the helmets, no one physically inhabits these dresses and yet: a presence is felt.
Pro sport is a canny entry point for conversations about racism, marginalization, and the exploitation and appropriation of Black culture that transcend the court or field. Mohamoud, who was longlisted for the 2021 Sobey Art Award, was not available for an interview, but Matthew Kyba, the exhibition’s curator, says she has an incredible ability to “instill some really difficult things into punchy artworks,” he says.
“Her work makes clear very latent or hidden racial, kind of gendered misogyny. I think it hits people so hard because it makes people realize these things are hiding in plain sight.”
To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat is one of the first major exhibitions by a Black artist at the WAG, which also adds to its significance. For Kyba, this exhibition represents the direction institutions should be moving in, so it’s been a thrill to see this show tour across the country (it has previously been on view at Museum London, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Ottawa Art Gallery).
“I just feel like if not this, then what? What are we doing? This is what art can do. Esmaa really shows you can teach history, you can teach empathy, you can teach politics, you can teach gender — you can teach so many things through good art.
“I hope people come in and broaden their perspective.”
To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat is on view at the WAG now.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.