The world of professional sports has come under national scrutiny for its recent controversies involving Ray Rice's domestic violence incident, Adrian Peterson's child abuse case and the NFL's failure to guarantee cheerleaders a minimum wage despite generating $9.7 billion annually. On the surface these issues are fodder for sensationalism. Yet they are also microcosms of deeper societal issues in relation to race, violence, gender and economics.
The latter is true for visual artist Derek Fordjour, who uses imagery from professional sports as an allegory. In his work power dynamics which inherently encompass questions about race, class and gender are explored through the visual references of players, cheerleaders and audience. In effect, the spectacle of sport magnifies the challenges of everyday life in relation to social issues.
"In modern day sports, I'm interested in what is essentially true about a social totem or veiled hierarchies that still permeate many of the philosophical underpinnings that support many of the institutions at work in society today," said Fordjour. "Questions around how we express agency, derive notions of progress and experience vulnerability as human beings is at the core of my work."
There just may be something that the sports world (and the rest of society) could learn from the messages behind Fordjour's paintings, drawings and sculptures. So we decided to get the artists' thoughts on five of his works which are currently on view in his exhibition The Big Game, at Storefront Ten Eyck in New York City. Let the games begin.
On 'No. 92':
"The player portraits are a series of works whose titles adopt the same conventions of number assignment in sports. I create them without any individual person in mind and prefer instead to consider them as everyman. What is clear about them is their role as player, their gender and race. For me, these reductions then become about classification, profiling and the loss of individuation. The lack of specific personage and the number titles together evoke a sense of systemic control. As individual as we each are, particularly in a data-driven climate, we can also be increasingly reduced to numerical identification whether it be an employee number, social security number, IP address, military ID, student ID, prison number or statistic."
On 'Three Stack':
"Visually, it's a simple and palatable image. Conceptually, it becomes rich terrain to explore the disparities that exist in contemporary society between men and women. Cheerleaders are often sidelined, peripheral to the action, having no effect on the outcome of the game beyond a support role, stringently conforming to a beauty standard and often grossly underpaid. The cheerleader functions in my work emblematically. Even beyond equal pay in the workplace, the prices of artworks of female artists often lag behind their male counterparts. That these are realities in the world I inhabit in 2014 are at the very least intriguing."
"Topdog/Underdog takes its title from the play by Suzan-Lori Parks. While the piece was not inspired by the play, many of the themes inherit in her writing become an important layer of meaning. This sculpture is essentially about vulnerability and the balance of power. The wheel and ramp-like pedestal underscore the instability inherent in maintaining position."
"This piece is a response to an image I had in a dream. Conceptually I was thinking about competition and levels, also access and the desire to be an insider. Mortality was also a consideration in thinking about how we become smaller in terms of peers and generations as we age and also a physical diminishment. Formally, the structure references early coliseums, arenas, governance, a vortex and one of my favorite paintings, Thomas Eakins' Portrait of Samuel D. Gross (The Gross Clinic). The piece took about a year to complete with 56 hand-sculpted clay and iron figures and I worked with an engineer and programmer to create a motorized base. The movements are choreographed to underscore the tension between randomness and order."
"'Untitled' is a piece that I pondered for a while. The wood is taken from a ship which is over 100 years old. It was salvaged and perfectly aged. This is a piece that is as much about history as it is about modern life. It's a work about exceptionalism, tokenism and a recent phenomenon, 15 minutes of fame and how these social dynamics have persisted throughout time. The wheel base has the appearance of mobility, however it is practically immobile. A viewer also shared that the piece felt anthropomorphic to him and made him think of his own lack of agency. I thought this was an interesting insight as well. Many levels to this piece. I still learn from it."
The weekly column, On the "A" w/Souleo, covers the intersection of the arts, culture entertainment and philanthropy in Harlem and beyond and is written by Souleo, founder and president of event/media content production company, Souleo Enterprises, LLC.