September 14, 2019 – January 5, 2020
Curated by Matthew Kyba
By Adi Berardini
Walking into To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat by Esmaa Mohamoud feels dark and ominous. The lighting is dim, the works under a faint spotlight—the space itself feels oppressive with a prevailing sense of shadows. Through her work, Esmaa Mohamoud focuses on racial and gender inequality in professional sports culture. Multiples of concrete basketballs are reflected on a black plexiglass pond and chains are draped from the ceiling holding Under Armour Cleats. At the end of the main wall, there’s a large circular ring of black footballs, all subtly branded with a traditional Kente pattern if you look closely enough. Mohamoud brilliantly addresses toxic masculinity, identity, and lack of access in sports, criticizing the spectacle of violence towards Black bodies as a form of neo-slavery.
Mohamoud questions the binaries that are inherent in sports and in our broader society. As Matthew Kyba outlines in his curatorial text, in any sports game there’s a “winner” and a “loser,” perpetuating an “us versus them” mentality. The same sense of opposition is present in masculinity and femininity, the binary oppositions prevalent in western society privileges the earlier rather than the latter. In her two pieces One of the Boys (Black) and One of the Boys (White) she juxtaposes a Toronto Raptors jersey and an elaborate ballgown, melding the two gendered extremes together. The piece evokes the sense of masculinity expected in sports when someone strays away from the expectation, they immediately become criticized. The layers of oppression become multi-faceted since gendered expectations and homophobia can be implemented from varying communities. One of the Boys displays how celebrating a multiplicity of gender expressions can subvert this binary.
In her three-channel film installation From the Ground We Fall, two players are stuck in opposition. Juxtaposed with romantic music by Nina Simone, they try to pull away from each other in the sweltering heat, although inevitably fail, since they are bound by multiple chains. The film comments on the struggle within colonial systems where members of a community are pitted against each other. Sports also implement a sense of “neo-slavery” wherein players are placed within rankings and given value based on their physical qualities and performance. Through this process, a sense of identity is lost, and their worth is solely based on their abilities and rankings, perpetuating the violence and competition of pre-dominantly Black players.
This is further explored in Mohamoud’s notable work Glorious Bones, consisting of forty-six adorned helmets with a range of West and East African patterns. Although there’s a deliberately frustrating viewing experience since they are blockaded by another work Fences, a gigantic hockey net strung from the ceiling. The helmets prescribe a vibrancy to the ghost players since they are embellished in saturated African patterns of teal, cadmium red, and mustard. Glorious Bones highlights the richness of African culture within the context of North American sports, which feels lost through team uniforms that erase this individuality. The net barrier of Fences blocks the access and exploitation of culture which happens so frequently through a white, western gaze. This sense of the white gaze is guilty of enjoying Black culture but lacks the true respect for Black people.
As Mohamoud explains, Fences also comments on the lack of equality of access in sports, particularly hockey, due to hockey’s high expense to participate. Capitalism’s hands are a means of exclusion from these systems that perpetuates the feeling of being unwelcome. Mohamoud challenges the trope of “cultural acceptance” and “diversity” in a society that actively perpetuates exclusion through classism rooted in white supremacy. In a subtle intervention, a gold grill embedded in the wall, her work Why See the World When You Got the Beach? critiques the western obsession of wealth accumulation and material obsession. The gold entices and causes one to go to any length, including exploitation, to reach it. This intrusion into the museum’s architecture also has symbolic significance since the work positions itself into the white walls of the institution.
Further, she encourages viewers to contend with society’s enjoyment of a system that perpetuates toxic masculinity and the organized competition of Black players.
Additionally, Mohamoud addresses both the hyper-visibility and invisibility of racialized bodies. Through the effective use of discrete text composed of clear vinyl on the concrete floor, she quotes Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man, creating an obstacle in reading the understated work below one’s feet. In Ellison’s book, the protagonist is never given an identity and is a tokenized figure fabricated from racist views and stereotypes. The subtleness of the texts conveys a sense of ignorance within whiteness, often oblivious to unconscious racism and the struggles of Black individuals.
At the artist and curatorial talk held at Museum London, Mohamoud speaks about how she both loves sports (the Raptors are her team) but views the sports entertainment industry with a critical eye. Esmaa Mohamoud’s To Play in The Face of Certain Defeat reflects on the toxic systems that exploit the violence of racialized bodies for entertainment. Further, she encourages viewers to contend with society’s enjoyment of a system that perpetuates toxic masculinity and the organized competition of Black players. Mohamoud’s work makes a lasting impact regarding sports entertainment and its connection to racial, class and gender inequality—causing one to think again before flipping to the NHL channel.
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