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 These works simultaneously appeal to those who understand formalism and appreciate art historical references, and those for whom ball is life.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. 1983, Caracas, Venezuela. Lives and works in New York
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.