8 Rising Artists Using Basketball to Address Social Injustices
The phrase “More Than an Athlete” entered the public lexicon in 2018 after Fox News host Laura Ingraham told NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant to “shut up and dribble” in response to their criticism of President Trump. Black athletes who speak against social injustices are constantly told by right-wing pundits and their followers to stick to sports. NBA and WNBA players understand that basketball is more than a game, it’s a culture, one where the majority of its participants are often those most impacted by systemic oppression.
While socially conscious athletes look to address their concerns outside the world of sports, visual artists have found it useful to lean into athletics. From David Hammons’s Higher Goals (1983) to Hank Willis Thomas’s Guernica (2016), many artists have created basketball-themed works that underline the challenges faced in inner-cities while paying tribute to the game and those who love it. These works simultaneously appeal to those who understand formalism and appreciate art historical references, and those for whom ball is life.
Here, we look at eight young artists working in this long tradition of referencing basketball to meditate on social issues, speak directly to their communities, or simply highlight the beauty of the game.
B. 1987, Los Angeles. Lives and works in Los Angeles.
Lauren Halsey, My Hope, 2022. Photo by Andy Romer. Courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery.
Lauren Halsey grew up playing basketball and dreamed of suiting up for the late NCAA coaching legend Pat Summit at the University of Tennessee. After not being recruited, Halsey shifted her focus towards art, earning a BFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and later, an MFA from Yale University.
Led by an interest in architecture, Halsey builds installations large enough for friends and community members to occupy. Not only conceived of as social spaces, the works are also assembled with the help of Halsey’s friends. The team-building she practiced on the court has now transferred to community-building off the court.
In her current solo exhibition at David Kordansky Gallery in New York, on view through June 11th, a massive 18-feet-wide installation titled My Hope (2022) renders a euphoric vision of a Black neighborhood. On one strip, there’s a Black congregation in worship, a procession of lowriders, gold pyramids, and a prominently placed basketball court—situating the game as an indispensable aspect of the community.
Halsey’s life-sized, cavernous, multi-media installations are archives of Black culture, sprawling with collected ephemera. Within these aggregations, basketball frequently makes an appearance. Though it’s never a single focal point, the sport’s inclusion in Halsey’s time capsules underscore the game’s significance.
B. 1988, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Lives and works in Los Angeles.
Awol Erizku, Muhammad Ali, 2016. © Awol Erizku. Courtesy of the artist and Ben Brown Fine Arts.
Awol Erizku uses photography, film, sculpture, and installation to create a dialogue between Hip-Hop, art history, and the African diaspora. For years, Erizku has tapped into the world of basketball, be it his Donald Judd–inspired sculpture Oh What a Feeling, aw Fuck It, I Want a Trillion (2015), still-life photograph Black Fire (Mouzone Brothas) (2019), or 2022 portrait of Brooklyn Nets player Kevin Durant.
Like Hammons and Barkley L. Hendricks, Erizku has produced enough basketball-infused work to warrant their own exhibition. In his 2016 solo exhibition “Bad II the Bone” at Night Gallery, Erizku merged abstract painting with sculpture. A large number of the works were made with basketball backboards and rims, some intact, some separated and affixed to other objects. With several hoops attached to traffic signs, he literally brings the streets into the gallery.
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s and Hammons’ use of readymade and found materials, Erizku draws from the neighborhoods in which he’s lived. “My audience is always the people that I grew up around,” Erizku shared in a 2020 interview with GQ. Although the objects are removed from their original environments and no longer used as intended, they aren’t obscured to the point of losing a sense of familiarity. Erizku makes space for those without a background in fine art to enter.
B. 1985, Lynchburg, VA. Lives and works in New York.
Kevin Beasley works across sculpture, sound, video, and live performance to produce works that mine personal and collective experiences to examine race in the United States. In his 2017 solo show “Sport/Utility” at Casey Kaplan in New York, Beasley exhibited a series of collages made of NBA jerseys, including those of players Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, James Harden, Derrick Rose, John Wall, and Metta World Peace. The works function as an homage to the NBA stars while strategically emphasizing the double meaning of the players’s names, which recall the legacy of the spice trade, greed, apathy to state sanctioned violence, exploitation, xenophobia, and global conflict.
During the wave of civil unrest and daily protests in 2020, the NBA proved the power of Beasley’s concept when it allowed players to replace their surname on their jerseys with a word or phrase that drew attention to an issue of their choice, such as police brutality or voting rights. Instead of their last name, players wore phrases such as “Black Lives Matter,” “Say Her Name,” “Sí Se Puede,” “Vote,” and more.
B. 1998, Washington D.C. Lives and works between New York and Washington D.C.
In his practice, Emmanuel Massillon references the looming presence of sports stardom over the inner-city, where athletics are often prioritized at an early age. In works like Force Fed (2022), Superbowl Sundae (2021), and African American Dodger (2021), Massillon examines how sports leagues exploit Black bodies for their own gain, and their complicity in indoctrinating a culture into believing that class mobility through sports is either the best way or the only way.
In Inner City Angel (2022), Massilion takes a traditional African mask and affixes a basketball rim atop like an angel’s halo. The work represents a spirit who descends from the heavens to bless a young basketball player living in the inner-city with the rare talent and luck required to go from the streets to the league. Similar to how one can’t budget their way out of poverty, one can’t simply work their way to the NBA. It has less to do with personal will and more to do with divine intervention.
In 2002, then-high-schooler LeBron James was named “The Chosen One” on the cover of Sports Illustrated, suggesting that the basketball gods anointed James as the heir to Michael Jordan’s throne. The child of a single, Black, teenage mother, James has since lifted his family from poverty and built a school in his hometown that provides every student with a college scholarship and housing support for families in need. Massillon’s Inner City Angel addresses how the United States has failed many Black youth and the dire conditions in which kids work tirelessly in the hopes of being the next chosen one.
B. 1992, London, Canada. Lives and works in Toronto.
Esmaa Mohamoud, Double Dribble, 2021. Photo by Julian Romano. Courtesy of the artist and The Bentway.
Sculpture and installation artist Esmaa Mohamoud uses the universal appeal of sports to investigate racism, classism, and body politics. In her 2021 exhibition “To Play in the Face of Certain Defeat” at The Art Gallery of Hamilton, Mohamoud examined the commodification of the Black body within the sports profession and the ways the industry contributes to the oppression of marginalized people. Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams) (2016) and One of the Boys (2017–19) focus specifically on basketball to confront economic inequality and sexism, respectively.
Mohamoud’s 2021 public installation Double Dribble, commissioned and presented by The Bentway in Toronto, transformed an expressway underpass into a reimagined version of a basketball court, confronting exclusionary practices based on race and class that prohibit playing in public spaces. Double Dribble—which takes its name from a term describing an illegal basketball move—discards any notion of rules or structure by multiplying, rescaling, and scattering court elements across the space. The installation invites participation and intervention while being critical of the ways revitalized public spaces aren’t intrinsically welcoming of marginalized peoples. With respectability politics in play, the wrong person milling about and bouncing a basketball might lead to an unjustified call to authorities, but in Double Dribble, the act of hanging out on the court is welcomed and honored.
B. 1983, Dallas. Lives and works in New York.
For Hugh Hayden’s 2021 solo exhibition at Lisson Gallery, “Huey,” the artist built basketball hoops out of materials connected to domesticity, power, and labor to confront the idea of the African American dream. Rapunzel (2021), a standard hoop with a long net made of braided blond hair extensions that hangs down to the floor, likens dreams of becoming a professional athlete to fairytales. Meanwhile, another rim Fruity (2021) is made of rattan that’s weaved like a basket and stained pink with Gatorade. These representations of domestic labor, expectations of beauty, and gendered associations with craft contradict the hypermasculine performance of athletes.
Meanwhile, in Huey (2021), Hayden pays tribute to the peacock chair—the wicker throne immortalized in Blair Stapp’s iconic 1968 portrait of Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton, and a staple in Black households throughout the ’60s and ’70s with residual carryover through to the ’90s. Positioned alongside the other works in the exhibition, Huey alludes to a liberated state that, while not yet realized and requiring a significant amount of work and hope, isn’t impossible.
B. 1983, Caracas, Venezuela. Lives and works in New York.
Alvaro Barrington, A womans work/Above the Rim, 2022. © Alvaro Barrington. Photo by Josh Schaedel. Courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles/New York/Tokyo.
Alvaro Barrington, Street dreams are made of basketball, 2021. © Alvaro Barrington. Courtesy of the artist and Emalin, London.
Using a wide range of geographically significant materials, Alvaro Barringon ties communal histories with references to cultural production. As someone raised between Brooklyn and the Caribbean, Barrington considers the ways lived environments impact material access. His works reflecting on the Global South are often framed using corrugated metal to reference domestic construction. In contrast, his paintings representing the Global North tend to be framed by concrete.
Basketball makes its way into Barrington’s work when he reflects on his Brooklyn upbringing. The sculptures Be his Peace (2021), Street dreams are made of basketball (2021), and A Womans work/Above the rim (2022) all employ yarn, burlap canvases framed by either wood or steel, and plastic milk crates partially filled with basketballs encased in concrete. While the concrete, milk crates, and basketballs feel familiar to New York, burlap is linked to the Caribbean and its production of cacao.
Barrington’s use of yarn connects to the craft of stitching practiced by the women in his family, as well as the artist’s personal fondness for fashion. The stitching in A Womans work/Above the rim seems to be of the same color palette as the Coogie sweater and Kangol cap worn by fellow Brooklynite with Caribbean roots Notorious B.I.G., as seen in Chi Modu’s 1996 photograph of the late rapper in front of the Twin Towers. Drawing from his own experience, Barrington has created a vernacular that allows for his work to be engaged from multiple points of view.
B. 1989, Philadelphia. Lives and works in Philadelphia.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase, combing my hair, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Company Gallery.
Often set in vulnerable and intimate settings, Jonathan Lyndon Chase’s paintings portray tender moments of Black queer life. In many of these works are references to sports, whether it’s through the clothing worn by the figures, the objects that surround them, or their nearby environments. In works like Tasted his sweet spilling sweat (2021), Chase explores how basketball culture appears within queer spaces, and how queerness might exist in traditional, heteronormative environments like the basketball court.
Meanwhile, in combing my hair (2017), a shirtless figure wearing a gold chain, basketball shorts, and Nike sneakers braids the hair of someone sitting on the ground below. A basketball rests a few inches away. Their close physical proximity is likely familiar to Black people who’ve gotten their hair done in the home of a trusted acquaintance or loved one. Chase evokes a multi-layered vulnerability that is rarely associated with men’s basketball even though, like many team sports, it is in fact quite intimate.