Abdi Farah’s America’s Team at Platform Gallery reviewed by Angela N. Carroll
For many athletes, playing a sport is the gateway to success, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pursue higher education, or a one-in-a-billion opportunity to make millions playing professionally.
Dr. Gregory J. Kaliss explains this phenomenon in his essay, Men’s College Athletics and the Politics of Racial Equality. “The notion of meritocracy, deeply embedded in American culture, seemed best realized in Athletic competition, an arena many hoped could be free from the racial prejudice that abrogated millions of American’s opportunities in business, politics, and social life,” said Kaliss. At Baltimore’s Platform Gallery, artist Abdi Farah explores the insidious pathology of American sports culture, especially racialization of sports in a solo exhibit of drawings, paintings, and fiber works in America’s Team.
“How do you make figurative work that is not about identity? Does that work edify or dehumanize? I’m interested in the ways it may dehumanize,” said Farah in an exhibition statement. The show, which displays deconstructed team banners and portraits of black athletes, seeks to explore the way sports unites Americans as a country, but also the way sports related pathologies influence the perception of our nation, community, and individual identity.
Farah believes that “so much of what we do in recreation, like football, is a kind of simulated warfare.” In America’s Team, the artist interrogates the violent history of the Confederacy by appropriating paraphernalia from Mississippi and Louisiana sports teams.
The artist’s commentary speaks directly to the rhetoric of the “America First,” our current administration’s (and followers’) desperate attachment to the notion of winning and putting America first. This is particularly ironic and personal because Farah achieved national fame in 2010 as the first season’s winner for the Bravo reality television show Work of Art. Farah’s intimate understanding of the difference between the perception of winning and the actuality of it seems to parallel America’s insistence on “winning” and of being perceived as a “winner.” Winning as a fraught concept forms the primary framework for the collection.
In America’s Team, beautiful photorealistic charcoal and oil portraits are installed beside monstrous deconstructed banners. The juxtaposition presents a disturbing layered conversation about the culture of team sports and the ways they mix political and social ideals: capitalism, social hierarchy, competition, playing your role. Sports culture informs the socializations of civil interactions, and thus are widely embraced and proudly celebrated as a profound reflection of American ideals.
Charcoal portraits “Name on the Front,” “Mr. Football,” and “Teen Titan,” centers the physicality of athlete’s bodies by capturing postures that accentuate their musculature. In contrast, “Weary King,” a portrait of a football mascot, counters this aesthetic and reveals the hierarchies of teams — someone plays the game, someone supports the player. A sweaty man emerges mouth agape from the neck of a thick lion suit. His physicality is masked beneath the costume. His expression is tired.
The banners “Indescribable Beast,” “Terrible Fans,” “Twice Conquered,” and “Trojan Pride” make more overt critiques about the ways identity is represented in sports paraphernalia. What is a mascot? Much of America’s Team uses real and imagined mascots to engage a deeper analysis about identity, history, and the culture of othering.
“Terrible Fans” and “Twice Conquered” review the iconography of the noble savage, a disembodied caricature of Native Americans. The decapitated head of an “indian chief”, with full head regalia, and occasional war paint, is a distressingly common icon in sports paraphernalia, so common that the horrid implications become invisible, quickly dismissed as just a mascot. Contemporary and colonial relations between the US government and sovereign nations are marred by perpetual conflict, broken treaties, destruction of sacred lands, and segregation within federally mandated reservations. Both “Terrible Fans” and “Twice Conquered” reveal the troubled, mocking tradition of flattening indigenous tribes by presenting them as mascots.
A logo on the jersey of your favorite team could indoctrinate a detached and idealized association with indigeneity. All the noble traits of idealized indigeneity like bravery, strength, savagery, spirituality, are compounded into a banal generality, a unifying symbol, a mascot. The rub rests in the propagation of these symbols as empty, rhetorical signifiers devoid of any real cultural or historic significance. This lie perpetuates the presumption that “native” mascots are non-offensive.
In “Terrible Fans,” two Washington Redskins logos are sewn into the top of a repurposed Fairview Indians banner. Black and white tassels dangle from the banners center and edges. The center of the banner, typically reserved for the mascots head, is a gaping hole. The simple geometry of the rectangular banner and the circular Redskins logos create an abstracted monster face, mouth open and screaming.
I could not help but wonder what the severed head of a cartoon “indian” represents in the imagination of sports enthusiasts. The terror expressed by the mask feels more kitsch than horrifying; which may also speak to the subliminal violence of some sports paraphernalia.
“Twice Conquered” repeats three abstracted renderings of the state of New Jersey and wraps them in a neon silver vinyl banner from imagined team, the Piscataway Iriquois. Each banner highlights a victorious championship win beneath the head of a cartoon Iriquois “warrior.” The title of the imagined team, obfuscates two real and culturally distinct Northeastern Native American tribes into one generalized “native” ideal. As if adding further insult to injury, Farah pushes this obscuring by splattering puke pink paint across the banners; a gesture that recalls the fanaticism of rival school sports teams.
“Trojan Pride” and “Indescribable Beast” make prominent critiques about the underlying propaganda of sports banners. In “Trojan Pride,” a broken pole limply bares a deteriorating banner. A Spartan head, an icon often attributed with Greco-Roman colonial expansion, is detached from its golden halo. The head sits awkwardly outside the halo, and drowned in a sea of Trojan Pride script. The “Trojan Pride” waves drift out beyond a thread bare banner, which dangles frailly on the wall.
Twice Conquered and Trojan Pride
In “Indescribable Beast,” a nondescript, semi-invisible mascot engulfs the banner. The mascot is formed from the body parts of other mascots, and archival photographs from confederate football games in Mississippi and Louisiana. Rather than render a legible, benign character, Farah creates an actual beast, a jumbled mass of sharp teeth, wings and claws stitched across a faded confederate flag. The patchwork banner is an outlier in the exhibition. The Frankenstein aesthetic employed exemplifies layered intentions, histories, customs in a more direct way than the other featured works. It would be exciting to see a collection that expanded on the ideas Farah begins to assess in this piece.
On the whole, America’s Team feels like an experiment, and some pieces function as better representations than others of the massive subject the exhibition attempts to unpack. Though the collection is small, more than a few of the works offer challenging assessments of the identity constructions implied in sports iconography, offering a rich and largely unexplored direction in contemporary art.
Name on the Front
Author Angela N. Carroll uses illustration, citizen journalism, documentary film, words, and experimental animation as primary mediums to contribute to and critique the archive. Music and meditation are her medicine. She is an artist-archivist; a purveyor and investigator of culture. Follow her on IG @angela_n_carroll or at angelancarroll.com.
America’s Team by Abdi Farrah is on display at Platform Gallery through April 29, 2017.
Photos courtesy of Platform Gallery by Tommy Bruce.