On a beautiful day in January 1978, the University of Washington’s football team was expected to lose. Their University of Michigan opponents were formidable; and many white spectators underestimated the UW quarterback Warren Moon because he was black. Both perceived problems, however, became their own solution, as Michigan’s overconfidence helped Moon carry his Huskies to a Rose Bowl upset in one of the finest performances in college football history.
The game and Moon’s spectacular career afterward are the basis for Esmaa Mohamoud’s A Seat Above the Table (2018), in which a found ‘peacock’ chair and its custom-built base, both in black rattan, make an appropriate metaphor – imposing yet fragile – for Moon’s trajectory. Despite being one of his generation’s most talented athletes, Moon played Canadian football for six years because no US team wanted him; and, while his return to the US suddenly made him the National Football League’s highest-paid player, he received lesser opportunities than a white quarterback likely would have – playing for solid teams but no champions. His status as the NFL Hall of Fame’s only black quarterback underscores rather than overrides the league’s history of discrimination.
It’s a familiar situation: needing to be twice as good as a white athlete in order to be seen as equal. Still, Moon was lucky. Consider his contemporary Earl Campbell, the running back who spent a decade flattening hapless defenders but now can hardly walk. Notwithstanding Denzel Washington’s Gettysburg soliloquy in Remember the Titans (2000) – quoted here in Mohamoud’s vinyl text piece, I Killed My Brother with Malice in My Heart (2018) – football does not create racial reconciliation. Though public awareness has increased in recent years about the effects of cerebral trauma and racially unequal pay, for some time the formula of American football has seemed to be that black players destroy each other for the enjoyment of white fans.
As with sports, so with society: in Mohamoud’s installation Glorious Bones (2018), 46 used football helmets on metal stands are metonyms for the players who wore them. By removing the helmets’ insides, Mohamoud asks if the padding serves its function – a question driven by growing concerns about football concussions. By covering each helmet with a different pattern of African wax-print textile, she frames brain injury as a trauma experienced by individual players made anonymous by their uniforms. This convergence between the conditions of black athletes and of young black men generally – the tendency to regard them as social units, without distinct personalities and interests – also informs Chain Gang (2018), a ten-yard chain hanging from the ceiling adorned with six pairs of football cleats. The title’s pun refers most directly to the football officials who use these chains to measure a team’s progress on the field, but it also evokes prisoners shackled together for transport or hard labour.
What expectations channel young black men into sports or prison, away from more reliable paths to stability and longevity (like an education worthy of the name)? In an earlier work, the astonishing Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams) (2016), featured in the Art Gallery of Ontario’s exhibition ‘Every.Now. Then’ (2017), Mohamoud captured the disappointment her brother experienced when the basketball career he banked on disappeared: 60 concrete basketballs growing richer in meaning and appearance as they crack and disintegrate. This exhibition extends the theme of athletics as danger, not prospect. Ultimately, however, neither Heavy, Heavy nor the works here are about sports. Mohamoud titled this show ‘ELEMENT’, a word that tends to refer to something’s sine qua non — as in chemical elements, atmospheric elements or the elements of a stove. In this case, we’re encouraged to look past stereotypes, preconceptions and prejudices to the fundamental characteristics of the person.
Esmaa Mohamoud, ‘ELEMENT’ was on view at Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto, from 30 November 2018 until 19 January 2019.
Main image: Esmaa Mohamoud, Glorious Bones, 2018, installation of 46 used football helmets, African wax print textile, adhesive, steel stands, earth. Courtesy: the artist and Georgia Scherman Projects, Toronto.
First published in Issue 201