Yonas Tesfai, 'Kaepernicks,' 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Since he first took a knee during the 2016 pre-season to protest ongoing police brutality and racial inequality in this country, former San Francisco 49er quarterback and social justice advocate Colin Kaepernick has lost his job and attracted the vitriol of sports fans, coaches, and franchise owners... and, of course, a certain occupant of the White House.
More important than all of that, his peaceful and powerful protest has revived a debate about sports as a venue for personal and political action. Artist and sports educator Dania Cabello takes up sports’ intersectional potential in Game Recognize Game, on view through Jan. 10 at San Francisco’s SOMArts Cultural Center.
Kaepernick isn’t the first to commit his celebrity status in support of social justice. Track and field phenom Jesse Owens’ historic success at the 1936 Berlin Olympics defied Adolf Hitler’s racist ideological position that Aryan (read: white, male, Germanic) athletes were superior based on their ethnicity.
In 1968, Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood atop the medals podium in Mexico City, lowered their heads and raised their gloved fists in solidarity with the Black Power movement's fight for civil rights and those protesting the Vietnam War in the United States.
Like Kaepernick, Owens, Smith and Carlos weathered rejection for speaking truth to power simply because they were black. These historic moments form the (admittedly) American yet still-rich social and visual context in which Cabello’s exhibition is situated.
SOMArts’ main gallery presents a challenge for its size. An exhibition comprising seven artists’ work could appear underwhelming, but Cabello and exhibition designer Matt McKinley settled on a smart strategy: reserve half the gallery for visitors to play.
With balls made available at the front desk, visitors are invited to play basketball with the crate “hoop” -- enacting a joyous ritual as old as the Aztec figure in Miguel “Bounce” Perez’s mixed media mural -- as a projection of the Golden State Warriors shows at their feet, or take shots at the border walls that represent division in Mexico and Palestine in Cabello and Yvan Iturriaga’s installation Nepantla. A Nahuatl word meaning “in-between-ness,” nepantla in this context may be understood as a physical and psychological space that gives rise to both resistance and play, worldwide.
Kaepernick -- and before him Carlos, Owens and the late, great Muhammad Ali -- is the African-American male athlete onto whose body is projected all manner of meaning, who is first praised for his physical accomplishments and then condemned for expressing dissenting opinions that trouble professional sports’ supposed neutrality. Cabello widens that critical field by including female athletes -- both famous and anonymous -- to honor challenges made to globalization and cultural erasure. These inclusions also pointedly expose gender-based expectations against which the athletes compete and play.
Cece Carpio’s installation Huktingan (The Royal Rumble) elevates play in the lives of women representing the Churubamba village in Peru, Tarahumara (Rarámuri) people in northern Mexico, and the Ifugao women in the Philippines’ Cordillera region. This vibrant triptych/altar honors sport as a lifelong pursuit; one that does not relent as external cultures threaten to overwhelm indigenous ways of life, does not fade as the body ages, and does not require branded footwear or clothing to order to participate.
SOMArts' anteroom is almost always reserved for multimedia or video installation, and that tradition is maintained in Game Recognize Game with Iturriaga and Cabello’s collaborative video Dime cómo juegas y te diré quién eres (Tell me how you play and I’ll tell you who you are). Contrasting images of children at play, professional sports competitions, historical and contemporary sports marketing campaigns, and worldwide military conflict, this six-minute video effectively condenses the themes that Cabello articulates throughout the exhibition: sport is more than a pastime or a path to wealth. It is a language, an experience, an opportunity to exchange ideas, a metaphor for challenging the worst in our species in order to nurture what is best.
In describing the video as a glimpse of the “dark side” of sport, Iturriaga rightly notes the systems of socio-economic and cultural exploitation that feed it and, by extension, the world we inhabit. That, however, is not the dominant note of Game Recognize Game. Cabello and the participating artists emphasize, through the joyful universality play, how the -isms that plague us (racism, sexism, classism, xeno- and homophobia) overlap and may be exposed and defeated. This is intersectionality. This is the hard work that will continue, as Kaepernick said upon receiving the Ali Legacy Award, regardless of platform or payment. The work will continue one goal at a time, one three-point shot at a time, so long as there are athletes of any age who want to play.
'Game Recognize Game' is on view at SOMArts Cultural Center through Jan. 10, 2018. For more information, click here.
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