The Ottawa Art Gallery has reopened after provincial pandemic restrictions have been loosened and the occupation that took hold of downtown Ottawa for almost a month has ended and you need to go to ASAP because Esmaa Mohamoud’s exhibition ends March 27th! This fantastic exhibition, To Play In The Face Of Certain Defeat draws on imagery from sports to explore the ways in which Black bodies appear and yet are rendered invisible within the spaces they exist. Using athletic equipments the installations and photography “illustrate pervasive, discriminatory behaviours and attitudes based on race, class, gender, and sexuality.”
Walking into the exhibition you are confronted by an installation of football helmets covered in different African wax prints. The helmets are at once beautiful with the colourful prints but also slightly haunting in how they represent the hypervisibility and invisibility Black people. We see the colours of the figures but not the faces. Mohamoud takes inspiration for this body of work from African American writer Ralph Ellison and at the beginning of the exhibit viewers see a quote from his 1952 work Invisible Man, “I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me… When they approach me, they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.”
One of the things that I find to be really genius about this exhibition and Mohamoud’s work is how she uses sports as an entry point for discussions about race. Mohamoud said, “Lots of people feel really uncomfortable talking about race, but people don’t feel uncomfortable talking about sports, so it’s my way of tricking the viewer into having a conversation they don’t really want to have.”
The series of photographs titled One of the Boys featuring “basketball gowns” plays with the ambiguity of gender and the assumptions of how gender is preformed, not just in the world of sports but also for Black individuals. Mohamoud has spoken about how it was difficult to find a Black man to pose in the basketball gown for her, even fellow artists refused. “I find this work important right now, because black masculinity is so fragile that just wearing a garment really alarms a lot of black men,” she says. Mohamoud says she understood gender fluidity at an early age as the only girl amongst her four male siblings.
In her work, Mohamoud equates professional sports with a covert form of neo-slavery. The work Chain Gang evokes prisoners shackled together to be transported or to do hard labour. In the NFL where Black men make up more than 50% of players there has been little racial reckoning and Black players face pay inequalities all while destroying each other for the enjoyment of White fans. In a video installation From the Ground We Fall two Black figures wearing the football helmets and shoulder pads with chains attached, seen hanging from the ceiling in the exhibition, run apart from each other in a field but struggle against each other and the chains that hold them back.
Overall I thought this was a fantastic exhibition and extremely thought provoking. Mohamoud’s use of the sports imagery as a vehicle for conversations abut race and gender are very clever and striking. I do wish that there were more didactic labels though as some added context to the individual artworks would be really useful. Particularly for artworks like A Seat Above the Table (Warren Moon) which references the only Black quarterback to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, however as a non-sports fan I only learned that when I read up on Mohamoud’s work online after seeing the exhibition. I understand wanting the works to speak for themselves or maybe it was a choice by the curator but I feel having a bit more information would be useful to the casual art viewer.
The Ottawa Art Gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10am – 6pm. You no longer need to reserve online in advance of your visit and it’s also always free! So don’t wait to see Esmaa Mohamoud: To Play In The Face Of Certain Defeat since it ends on March 27th, 2022.