Sports Culture Is The Catalyst For Esmaa Mohamoud’s Art

The Toronto visual artist sculpts a narrative about identity weighed down by the dark side of athletics.

Every surface of Esmaa Mohamoud’s studio is covered in concrete residue. The 23-year-old artist has spent months preparing for her new show, #000000 VIOLENCE, where she will unveil 60 slightly deflated looking basketballs, each 30 pounds of pure concrete. It’s her very first solo show, and will feature four different sculpture and installation works; pieces Mohamoud has made with her hands and that she says “speak to the intangibility of black culture.” Mohamoud’s primary artistic fascination is also the subject of her Masters dissertation: she is looking at ways of making black culture tangible, through the lens of economics, wealth, and power. “More specifically, I’m using the realm of athletics to speak to issues of black masculinity; how violence and athletics go hand-in-hand in black culture.”

Mohamoud grew up between Toronto, the small university town of London, Ontario, and Egypt, where her family is from. Her time in these different places, as well as summer’s spent in Chicago as a teen, inform the way she works. “Although I am black, I’m also Egyptian and I speak Arabic. I lost that when I was in London, because people only saw me as black—they didn’t see the complexity of my background. It was hard for me to make work there [during my undergrad] because of all the racism; I was reserved in my art practice and tried hard not to offend people.”

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Now, or at least for her current work, the only person whose reaction matters is her eldest brother (Esmaa is the middle child, and the only girl in a family of five siblings). He's a former basketball ingenue now in training to become a correctional officer, and since he’s working she’ll FaceTime with him from the opening. “I hope he’s proud of the work,” she says. “He doesn’t know just how much watching him struggle affected me.”

Sitting in that dusty studio between two large-scale pencil drawings of Action Bronson and Outkast—things she works on during breaks from sculpting—Mohamoud told me about why sculpture matters, and the heavy side of basketball culture.

When did you get into art?

I think I was born doing this! Ever since I was little I was good at regular things like math and science but I just thought this was cooler. My parents were like, ‘No, go be a doctor, go be a lawyer,’ but I started to take art seriously when I was 17. They were disappointed but they got over it, and now they're happy because they’re like, ‘Oh, you're not that bad at it.’ (Laughs) I never liked painting and I didn't sculpt until I was 17, so before I was just making drawings. I made my first large scale drawing at 16; it was of a Mustang GT and it was about 5 feet wide, which is nothing compared to the size I work with now.

When did you realize that sculpting was it?

My dad didn’t like that all of my drawings were black and white. He wanted more colour so he brought home this big box of terracotta clay one day. I didn't know what it was at first, it just looked like this brown log. My dad was like, ‘No, this is clay. You can make stuff out of it. That's what they said at the art store.’ It was a whole new world. The first thing I sculpted was a horse. I made small things that I could hold, or things we were learning about in school drawing classes like still life. So little apples and bananas. I enjoy the practice of drawing, but after it's done it's just a thing on a wall or flat surface. But with sculpture I can hold it or someone else can interact with it. I wanted something that went beyond 2D, something tangible, something I could feel and be a part of. To know that my body goes into every single one of these basketballs is amazing to me. It feels good.


Why basketballs? And what’s the significance behind the amount that you’ve made?

When I was originally making this piece, which is called “Heavy Heavy Hoop Dreams,” I told myself I’d make 30 basketballs, and then I saw 30 in the space and it didn't look how I pictured it. I wanted it to take up a lot of the gallery. So then I decided on 60, and they will take up about 10 feet on a black plexiglass platform. I could only work with the numbers 30 or 60 because 30 represents the first round draft picks in the NBA and 60 is the second round draft picks. There was no in between. Each one weighs 30 pounds too, so it’s hard work. I kind of fucked myself on that! (Laughs)

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I watched the Hoop Dreams documentary, which follows these young boys who got basketball scholarships but never made it to the NBA, despite all the help they got. And I started looking into the statistics of how many people actually make it to the NBA. Every year the NBA only employs 500 players, including players that are already in the NBA. There are only 30 draft picks every year, so think about all the black men across North America who grow up thinking they're going to get into the NBA. My brother was one of those people. Basketball was his whole life and then it just wasn’t anymore. These people bank on the fact that they're going to become wealthy NBA players and have nothing to fall back on. It felt heavy to me. So I made concrete basketballs that are extremely heavy yet so fragile. The nature of concrete is to crack so eventually these will crack and break apart.

Wait, so you designed these to fall apart over time?

Yeah. This was my second time using concrete in my art practice but I had to actually really learn about it. There were a lot of steps. The first basketball I made was really ugly; it’s porous and crumbling. It took a while for me to understand the temperament of concrete. I actually don't manipulate the material, just the environment it exists in. In order for concrete not to crack you seal the moisture in, but I did the opposite because I wanted it to crack. So instead of putting a bag over the basketball when I was done making it, I left it. Each one takes about a day. Some of them crack more than others. To me it symbolizes, like, a rebirth. Shedding this notion and perception that black men can only exist in three sites—athletics, music, acting/comedy. I’m focusing on athletics and wanted to give a sense of how heavy this reality is for people that live through it.

To know that my body goes into every single one of these basketballs is amazing to me. It feels good.

What about some of the other pieces in the show?

One is a large-scale basketball net, where people can stand inside to get a portal into some of the feelings and reservations that some black men have with sports: captivation, and the sense that that they're trapped. For the show, I'm having two black men deconstruct the net on site. Obviously chains reference a lot in black history so I think this performative aspect is important. I want people to see the nets get taken down. Nothing will be left.

Another is a piece with the names of the 70 unarmed black people killed by police from 1999-2014. I printed the names onto black paper so you can barely see it, only at an angle. It's only when you go closer you realize it's individual people with stories and families and lives, ideas that get lost with racial profiling and media narratives. I made a second iteration of that piece which is just the names of unarmed black men killed in 2015, which is over 100 people alone just in the US. I'm having difficulty locating names for Canada because here police officers don’t report [race-based data], and in America that information is much more accessible.

When, or why, did you start thinking about this stuff?

I grew up with four brothers and I’m right in the middle. So even though I identify as a woman I grew up as a tomboy, and I've always been into and felt more attached to more masculine things. All throughout my undergrad I worked with issues around black identity and culture, and when I came to OCAD to do my Masters I started reading a bunch of different texts, and then really focused on black masculinity. I was reading Frantz Fanon, and Thelma Golden, she’s the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem; she did a whole exhibition on black masculinity. And some of my favorite artists like Glenn Ligon and David Hammons also work with black masculinity, and I was like, ‘Wow, I want to be like them.’

At the same time people were like, you're a girl you can't talk about this but I can talk about whatever I want to talk about. This is important to me, this is part of my culture. I don't know if I'll continue making work about black men or if I'll start to talk about unicorns, I don't know. But I know that right now, this is really important to me. Black men are being killed everyday. The root is economic and all these other issues stem from it. People see the black male body and assume a bunch of stereotypes, a lot of which aren't true.

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Sports Culture Is The Catalyst For Esmaa Mohamoud’s Art