Taking inspiration from the African American writer Ralph Ellison, artist Esmaa Mohamoud explores the ways in which Black bodies at once appear―and yet are rendered metaphorically invisible―within the spaces they navigate. To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat aims to re-examine understandings of contemporary Blackness, questioning the definitions of Blackness as a colour and shade, and/or as a societal or cultural construction.
Mohamoud draws on the modern industry of professional sports, which she equates with a covert form of neo-slavery. The London, Ontario-born artist transforms athletic equipment and symbols to illustrate pervasive, discriminatory behaviours and attitudes based on race, class, gender, and sexuality. She examines collective and individual struggle, focusing on the homogenization of bodies within high-level athletics, and the enforced play out of competitive violence between Black subjects. Through sculpture, photography, video, and installation, she investigates how high-level athletics operate as sites of corporate profit and discrimination.
The dozen artworks in this exhibition consider a variety of concerns. Mohamoud’s appropriation of basketball jerseys within Victorian-era ballgowns, for example, complicates the sport’s fraught relationship with queer, gender-fluid, and female identities. Reconstructed football equipment, including branded black leather footballs and African wax-printed helmets, celebrate cultural plurality through their exuberant, diverse designs, while also protesting the staged enactment of Black violence for entertainment.