A praise poem for black girls and women

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A body of work called Gymnasium, currently viewable on the Stevenson gallery’s website, welcomes viewers into a utopia that is soft and powerful in engaging with the black woman identity within gymnastics, writes Nickita Maesela

Art
TRIALS 2020, oil on canvas, 100cm x 150cm Pictures: Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Courtesy of Stevenson Cape Town and Johannesburg. Picture: Nina Lieska

ART EXHIBITION

In Yoruba, praise poems are called oriki; in isiZulu, they are izibongo.

They are present in many cultures across the African diaspora, and their most common purpose is to praise the character, and the achievements of chiefs and kings.

In the work of Johannesburg-based multimedia artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, this praise is bestowed on black girls in the organised sports world of gymnastics.

Nkosi’s exhibition, Gymnasium, has reached viewers across the world since its official virtual opening on March 26, the night before South Africa locked down to curb the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

According to the fashion, art and culture publication Document Journal, “the Gymnasium series began as outgrowth of earlier architectural paintings examining the symbolic vestiges of apartheid in Johannesburg, in recognition that ‘nothing much had changed’.” The solo show explores blackness as an identity within organised sport, and offers an intimate perspective of gymnastics.

Gymnastics prodigy Simone Biles; one of the greatest tennis players of all time, Serena Williams; and middle-distance runner and Olympic gold medallist Caster Semenya are explicit examples of the challenges that particularly black women are expected to overcome to be considered acceptable to be the best in their respective fields.

Gymnastics is a sport historically dominated by non-black athletes; but we see the dominance of this demographic in the crowd of spectators featured in the background of the clips of the video work that is part of Nkosi’s exhibition.

This contrasts the depiction of black audience members in the paintings that are also part of the bigger body Nkosi’s work.

Art
TEAM 2020, oil on canvas, 150cm x 150cm. Picture: Nina Lieska

Oil on canvas and a video art piece come together to solidify the acknowledgment of the powerful black girl and woman through a political and artistic lens.

Nkosi’s work connects us to the very thing that we are conditioned to eliminate when judging and gawking at the gymnast on the gymnasium floor competing – that they are human.

Her paintings centre the black woman identity in the gymnasium in both the spectators and the gymnasts, which emphasises identity politics through representation.

There’s an energy of support, unity and visibility that feels like a reminder to young black girls that they too can achieve anything that they want.

The opening shot of the video, titled Suspension, shows Dianne Durham, the first African-American gymnast to become a US national champion.

Her arms are in formation covering her face, showing us only her forehead running up to her Afro, and the letters USA are printed on the chest of her pastel purple leotard.

As the viewer is introduced to the almost seven-minute-long video, the music consists of soundscapes of ocean waves building up towards something big, carrying the anticipation that we feel in every clip that transitions on the screen.

The rest of the video features black women gymnasts such as Sierra Brooks, Daisha Cannon, Luci Collins, Olivia Courtney and Naveen Daries in the last few moments before they head to the floor to compete.

Art
CHAMPION 2020, oil on canvas, 150cm x 150cm. Picture: Nina Lieska

The wave soundscape guides the viewer of the work by setting the pace of breathing through sound, which we see by the athletes taking deep breaths before showtime on the mat.

In the piece of work, there are vivid shots of suspense, anxiety and consistently remembering to breathe. It reminds me of one of the many coping mechanisms black women use when navigating almost any industry in this very white, male-centric, capitalist world, which we are systemically told is not for us to flourish in.

A tale of thriving over surviving, Nkosi’s paintings ignite visuals that can be placed in children’s books and art galleries, carrying the weight of empowerment of marginalised and discarded identities.

Lessons of determination, work ethic, camaraderie, resilience through so much pain, where there is also so much good, is evident in many stories written about black woman athletes who are record holders and champions in what they do.

Nkosi’s work gently takes us on a journey that speaks of tribulations, but reminds us of the beauty and strength that the black girl and woman athlete embodies.


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