Esmaa Mohamoud: THREE-PEAT
Oreka James: If the Other Does Not See Me, I do See Myself
Michèle Pearson Clarke: All That is Left Unsaid
by Rupert Nuttle
At the beginning of the 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, William Gates and Arthur Agee, two promising young basketball players from poor Chicago neighbourhoods, dream of what they’ll buy once they’re drafted into the NBA: a house for Mom, a Cadillac for Dad – an exit, in short, from the cycle of poverty, addiction and systemic racism that’s defined their lives so far. As Gates explains, “Basketball is my ticket out of the ghetto.”
The boys have just finished middle school and are soon recruited by St. Joseph’s, an upscale suburban high school, to fulfill the glory dreams of an abusive white coach. Agee gets cut after his freshman year and his family can’t afford a rise in tuition, so he transfers back to his neighbourhood school. Gates is kept on, supported by a private sponsor, but a knee injury plagues him throughout his junior and senior years. Somehow, despite the odds – the absent father figures, the lure of quick cash made by peddling crack – Agee and Gates both graduate and earn college basket all scholarships.
By this point, however, their disillusionment is visible. Their talent on the basketball court was supposed to deliver a better life for them and their families. Instead, it’s gotten them stuck in a web of contradicting expectations, burdened their families with debt and forced them to conform to others’ aspirations as they become pawns in the policing of black bodies through sport. “You have to realize that nobody cares about you,” yells a coach from a prestigious training camp, where the top universities are scouting high-school talent. “You’re black. You’re a young male. All you’re supposed to do is deal drugs and mug women. The only reason why you’re here [is] you can make their team win. And [when] their team wins, these schools get a lot of money. This whole thing is revolved around money.”
Neither player ever made it to the NBA. Gates became a pastor in a Chicago housing project; Agee tried and failed to launch a movie career. (Last November, Agee was charged and held on bail for punching a woman in a public park.) “What would have been ideal was for me and Arthur’s family to live happily and that we have enough money to do whatever we need to do,” Gates told the Washington Post in 2004. “But it didn’t pan out that way. We never caught that next wave.”
In 2016, Toronto-based artist Esmaa Mohamoud created Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams) (2016), a sculptural response to Hoop Dreams. It consists of 60 deflated basketballs cast in solid concrete, uniformly arranged on a black Plexiglas platform. Each of the heavy, misshapen orbs stands as an effigy to the promise of economic success through basketball which, for men like Gates and Agee, remains unconsummated. They are frank material metaphors: fragile, dull and colourless – just like these men’s deflated dreams.
In February, Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams) made its way to southern California, where it formed the basis of Three-Peat, Mohamoud’s first solo exhibition at ltd los angeles. It lay at the centre of ltd’s main gallery, flanked on either side by One of the Boys (2017) – a pair of bouffant ball gowns crafted from Vince Carter-era Toronto Raptors jerseys made in collaboration with artist Qendrim Hoti. In a performative gesture characteristic of Mohamoud, models wore the gowns to the gallery on opening night. Instagram shows them lounging on a set of bleachers installed for the occasion, their high-chroma evening wear spread out around them like puddles.
When I visited in early March, the bleachers sat vacant and the gowns, absent performers, had acquired a sturdy, museological aspect. Four photographs documenting One of the Boys – two printed on silk, two on vinyl banners – adorned the space, alluding to the garments’ performative possibilities. The silk photographs were taken in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Grange Library, a private sanctuary of historical white privilege. Against this backdrop, Mohamoud’s models – who are young and black – cut an image both subversive and undefinably elegant.
Where Mohamoud takes up these specific issues of racialized bodies as commodities in the sports industry, Toronto-based painter Oreka James deals with the social construction of blackness itself, as refracted through the lens of the othering gaze. Her exhibition, If the other does not see me, I do see myself, installed in the gallery adjacent to three-peat, featured unstretched paintings on canvas floating slightly off the wall. Echoing the motif of raw execution, stacks of bricks and brick fragments were scattered around the room.
The paintings themselves are figurative and fraught with symbolic drama. A snake writhes up a lamppost; arms reach through portals and wrap around walls; a pair of hands smudges eyeballs onto a hardwood floor. James’ figures are naked and have no heads, only elongated necks. Except for patches where white paint peeks through – “to implicate the viewer’s projected whitewashing,” according to the press release – their bodies are rendered in a flat, absolute shade of black. There is an intimacy to these pictures – their subjects are shown relaxing in the bath, lounging against window sills – but also an obliqueness. They are caught in a balance between the visible and invisible, and marked by a refusal to reveal themselves.
Upstairs, in the gallery’s low-ceilinged film room, Toronto-based Michèle Pearson Clarke’s experimental documentary All That is Left Unsaid (2014) played on a two-and-a-half-minute loop. The video is Clarke’s personal tribute to Audre Lorde, the poet, librarian, intersectional feminist and civil rights activist who passed away in 1992. It’s also a tribute to the artist’s mother, who, like Lorde, lived with cancer for 14 years. A loving meditation on what these women left behind, All That is Left Unsaid speaks of loss, disappointment, loneliness and resilience.
Most striking, however, is the fact that it hardly speaks at all. Clarke’s video, comprising interview clips with Lorde, is almost entirely non-verbal. Its source material is the 1995 documentary A Litany for Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Lorde, of which Clarke has essentially cut out the speaking parts. The symphonic result – a coup of video editing – is emotive in the most unexpected ways. Lorde inhales. Lorde exhales. She smiles, then laughs. She gesticulates wildly, then makes a face of incredulity, then seriousness, then concern. We hear her lips open and close, then the soft, drawn-out “ssss” from the ending of a word. “Mh,” she says, “p-ck” – “pshhh” – “ahhh.” When the rare full word pops out, as does “aight?” and an emphatic “we,” it’s almost jarring to behold. In the spirit of Lorde, who once declared, “I am defined as other in every group I’m part of,” All That is Left Unsaid asserts the value of marginalized speech. In those brief moments when language has subsided or has yet to appear, Clarke captures something Lorde’s own words never could have.
In Toronto, Mohamoud, Clarke and James are well known. Along with artists like Deanna Bowen, Bushra Junaid, Sandra Brewster, Syrus Marcus Ware and a long list of curators, activists, writers and educators, they are at the forefront of an institutional shift – one that works to recognize the historical presence and systematic erasure of Black Canadian identity. They have recently been included in major museum surveys, such as last year’s notable Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood, at the AGO, and Here We Are Here: Black Contemporary Art, which toured the Royal Ontario Museum and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts this spring.
I spoke with Shirley Morales, the founder of ltd, during my visit to the gallery, and asked if she’d intended to foreground this cultural movement. Her priority, she answered, had been first and foremost to “expose” these artists’ practices to a wider audience. “It doesn’t matter where they’re from,” she said. The fact that they share common cause and an artistic community was simply an “added bonus.” Morales also noted that she’s visited Toronto on a handful of occasions; “Toronto has been very good to our program,” Morales emphasized. “And I want you to acknowledge that.” That galleries and collectors across North America are taking notice is a testament to the force of these artists’ ideas.