Taken for the Team
The Walrus|September/October 2021
Esmaa Mohamoud’s installations capture the way professional sports prof it from Black bodies
CONNOR GAREL

IT IS OFTEN ASSUMED by people who should know better that Esmaa Mohamoud is a man. On the opening days of the artist’s exhibitions, which typically focus on the troubled relationship between professional sports and Black masculinity, those dizzied patrons will materialize, uninformed, to search determinedly for the Man Behind the Work. What happens instead is that they discover twenty-eight-year-old Mohamoud and often say something like, “Oh! You’re a woman.” Nonplussed reactions don’t surprise her. “It’s probably the subject matter,” she tells me one April afternoon, visibly amused. “The work reads as masculine; I have lots of masculine energy.”

Sometimes a gallery visitor will ask whether she’s the artist and she’ll say no, point out some poor unsuspecting man flitting about the crowd, and say it’s him, he’s Esmaa Mohamoud —  partly because she’s “super awkward and shy” but also because, despite her diffidence, she has a thing for the performative gesture. Like American artist Richard Serra, one of her artistic forebears, she creates installations with a certain grandeur: sculptures with gravity that engage the viewer’s body and force them to walk around the works rather than past them. This explains their notably large scale and her proclivity for industrial materials. (She is, for example, currently working on a field of 500 “indestructible” black dandelions that could probably fill a small bedroom; she sometimes tracks the progression of the installation on Instagram.)

Mohamoud makes sculptures about athletics, about Blackness, about gender, and sometimes about the ways those things rub up against one another to produce a social problem, if not a catastrophe. The spectre of bondage is sometimes raised: she frequently uses chains in her work. With these installations, Mohamoud draws an association between athleticism and historical forms of slavery. It’s a relationship that may seem, at first, unlikely, until she begins to guide viewers through her subject. Then it’s hard to unsee.

“I use sports in my work not because I love it so much but as a tool to trick people,” Mohamoud says. “People are uncomfortable talking about race, but they aren’t uncomfortable talking about sports.” The subject is a Trojan horse. Sports bring people together — in boozy living rooms, in crowded bars, and in the streets. There’s something special and irrepressible about all that mutual excitement: for a moment, the world falls away, and entire cities light up with mass euphoria. There’s nothing quite like winning.

But artists ruin everything because they don’t care about your comfort. They aren’t in the business of consensus. Mohamoud wants to expose the monstrous underbelly of all that winning. Professional sports, she argues, are not some bastion of simple pleasure and equal opportunity — they’re all still moored to the same racial logic that warps the rooms these players must return to when they’ve finished performing in a stadium, basking in triumph and applause.

ESMAA MOHAMOUD grew up in London, Ontario, where she started boxing and playing tennis when she was nine. She was the middle child of four brothers who all played basketball though high school. Sports were at the centre of her suburban childhood universe, the grounding preoccupation that held everything together. They were a conduit for community and opportunity, a sacred foundation where upsets or defeats were resolvable because there was always another game to be played, another chance to be redeemed, another conversation to be had about statistics while a match played on the living room television. As sports informed her life, so they inform her art.

After school, she would rush home and descend into her basement, bag still strapped to her back, to catch a late- afternoon episode of Art Attack — an exuberant and mildly chaotic British TV series that taught kids, step-by-step, how to make art projects from materials like sponges and construction paper. When Mohamoud’s parents recognized her talent, they enrolled her in a free after-school art program. By sixteen, she knew she was to be an artist; by seventeen, she had begun her BFAat Western University.

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