This article was originally published by Femme Art Review and is republished on LondonFuse through our affiliate partnership.

To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat: Esmaa Mohamoud at Museum London
Curated by Matthew Kyba
Museum London, September 14-January 5, 2020

Walking into To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat by Esmaa Mohamoud feels dark and ominous. The lighting is dim, the works under a faint spotlight—the space itself feels oppressive with a prevailing sense of shadows. Through her work, Esmaa Mohamoud focuses on racial and gender inequality in professional sports culture. Multiples of concrete basketballs are reflected on a plexiglass pond and chains are draped from the ceiling holding Under Armour Cleats. At the end of the main wall there’s a large circular ring of black footballs, all subtly branded with a traditional African pattern if you look closely enough. Mohamoud brilliantly addresses toxic masculinity, identity, and lack of access in sports, criticizing the spectacle of violence towards Black bodies in sports entertainment.

One of the Boys (Black) and (White), 2019, colour photographs on paper, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Photo: Lucas Link Stenning.
One of the Boys (Black) and (White), 2019, colour photographs on paper, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Photo: Lucas Link Stenning.

Mohamoud questions the binaries that are inherent in sports and in our broader society. As Matthew Kyba outlines in his curatorial text, in any sports game there’s a “winner” and a “loser,” perpetuating an “us versus them” mentality. The same sense of binary opposition is present in masculinity and femininity, western society often privileging the earlier rather than the latter. In her two pieces One of the Boys (Black) and One of the Boys (White) she juxtaposes a Toronto Raptors jersey and an elaborate ballgown, melding the two gendered extremes together. The piece evokes the sense of masculinity expected in sports culture; when someone strays away from the expectation, they immediately become criticized. The layers of oppression become multi-faceted since gendered expectations and homophobia can be implemented from varying communities. One of the Boys displays how celebrating a multiplicity of gender expressions can subvert this binary.

One of the Boys (Black) and (White), 2019, colour photographs on paper, satin gowns, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Photo: Lucas Link Stenning.
One of the Boys (Black) and (White), 2019, colour photographs on paper, satin gowns, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Photo: Lucas Link Stenning.

In her three-channel film installation, From the Ground We Fall, two players are stuck in opposition. Juxtaposed with romantic music by Nina Simone, they try to pull away from each other in the sweltering heat, although they inevitably fail, since they are bound by multiple chains. The film comments on the struggle within colonial systems where members of a community are pitted against each other. Mohamoud surfaces how professional sports culture also implements “neo-slavery” wherein players are given rankings based on their physical qualities and performance. Through this process, a sense of identity is lost, and their worth is solely based on their abilities and rankings, perpetuating the violence and competition of pre-dominantly Black players.

This is further explored in Mohamoud’s notable work Glorious Bones, consisting of forty-six adorned helmets with a range of West and East African patterns. Although, there’s a deliberately frustrating viewing experience since they are blockaded by another work Fences, a gigantic hockey net strung from the ceiling. The helmets prescribe a vibrancy to the ghost players since they are embellished in saturated African patterns of teal, cadmium red and mustard. Glorious Bones highlights the richness of African culture within the context of North American sports, which feels lost through team uniforms that erase this individuality. The net barrier of Fences blocks the access and exploitation of culture which happens so frequently through a white, western gaze. This sense of the white gaze is guilty of enjoying Black culture but lacks the true respect for Black people.

Glorious Bones, 2018-19, repurposed football helmets, African wax prints, faux soil, metal, and Fences, 2019, hockey goal mesh, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Photo: Lucas Link Stenning.
Glorious Bones, 2018-19, repurposed football helmets, African wax prints, faux soil, metal, and Fences, 2019, hockey goal mesh, Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects, Photo: Lucas Link Stenning.

As Mohamoud explains, Fences also comments on the lack of equality in terms of access in sports, particularly hockey, due to its high expense to participate. Capitalism’s hands are used as a means of exclusion, maintaining the feeling of being unwelcome. Mohamoud challenges the trope of “cultural acceptance” and “diversity” in a society that actively enables classism rooted in white supremacy. In a subtle intervention, a gold grill embedded in the wall, her work Why See the World When You Got the Beach? critiques the western obsession of wealth accumulation and material obsession. The gold entices and causes one to go to any length, including exploitation, to reach it. This intrusion into the museum’s architecture also has symbolic significance since the work positions itself into the white walls of the institution.

Additionally, Mohamoud addresses both the hyper-visibility and invisibility of racialized bodies. Through the effective use of discrete text composed of clear vinyl on the concrete floor, she quotes Ralph Ellison’s book Invisible Man, creating an obstacle in reading the understated work below one’s feet. In Ellison’s book the protagonist is never given an identity and is a tokenized figure fabricated from racist views and stereotypes. The subtleness of the text conveys a sense of ignorance within whiteness, often oblivious to unconscious racism and the struggles of Black individuals.

At the artist and curatorial talk held at Museum London, Mohamoud spoke
about how she both loves sports (the Raptors are her team) but views the sports entertainment industry with a critical eye. Esmaa Mohamoud’s To Play in The Face of Certain Defeat reflects on the toxic systems that exploit violence of racialized bodies for entertainment. Further, she encourages viewers to contend with society’s enjoyment of a system that perpetuates toxic masculinity and the organized competition of Black players. Mohamoud’s work makes a lasting impact regarding sports entertainment and its connection to racial, class and gender inequality—causing one to think again before flipping to the NHL channel.

You can follow Esmaa Mohamoud’s work on her website.

This review is an excerpt from the first print issue of Femme Art Review. If you’d like to grab a copy, you can visit the Femme Art Review’s online shop.

About Femme Art Review: FAR is an online publication that provides space for both LGBTQ2+ and women voices. This platform aims to reflect on art and culture in a dynamic, accessible way that aligns with everyday life.

Featured Image: Installation view, Esmaa Mohamoud: To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat, Museum London, 2019, Photo: Dickson Bou.

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