Hank Willis Thomas

“The Beautiful Game,” Hank Willis Thomas’s first solo exhibition in London, built on his ongoing study of the relationship between sports, nationalism, and the history of slavery in the United States. Previous works have included photographs such as Scarred Chest, 2004, which shows the Nike logo digitally rendered on a black body as a raised scarification, and The Cotton Bowl, 2011, depicting a US football player in a starting pose mirrored by a man picking cotton. Here, taking the transnational legacy of European football as his focus, Thomas presented ten quilts composed like (or even directly copying) modernist paintings, made of various jerseys from teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, and Liverpool, and rugby strips including those for New Zealand, Tonga, and South Africa—their sponsorship logos, from Adidas to Etihad, featuring prominently—and a suite of fiberglass or resin sculptures finished with chameleon auto paint. The latter include football totems (both British and American) meant to pay homage to Brancusi’s Endless Column, and an arm attached to a ball commemorating Diego Maradona’s notorious “hand of God” goal during the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal against England.

Tracing a relationship between culture, sport, and geopolitics by way of colonialism and its legacies, the quilts refer to the connection between Asafo warrior flags from the Fante region in Ghana and European contact with the territory in the eighteenth century. Our Enemies Are like Fish Caught in Dragnet, That Is, Easily Captured (all works 2017) is one of three works with the Union Jack rendered at a top corner (in this case, the left) as was typical of the flags of British colonies, below which five white figures are seen capturing three black warriors in a net over a bloodred background. Works such as this added a macabre tinge to the all-white Champion (White) made from Manchester United jerseys, its Chevrolet logo barely visible, with the word Champion quoting Stuart Davis’s paintings. Football becomes a contemporary reflection of the way bodies are conditioned to identify with commercially driven global enterprises, from imperial Britain in the nineteenth century to FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) today, where players are traded from one country to another, and corporate logos end up on national football jerseys as well as on local stadiums. Arsenal’s home ground in London, for example, is officially named Emirates Stadium. Today, international corporations drive the proxy battles fought on the football field, much as the colonizers did (and still do) on the fields of war (and commerce).

The opening of “A Beautiful Game” was fittingly timed to coincide with that of London’s two Frieze art fairs, a moment that epitomizes the battlefield of the global art market, another kind of competitive space inscribed with hierarchies that continue to skew toward Western—or “white”—power structures, and where nationality often acts as a marker not only of identity, but also of value. References in the composition of the quilts to Picasso and Matisse—artists whose work owes much to African art—are reactions not only to a continued whitewashing of art history, but also to a process of globalization that is rendered problematic when one takes into account the binary between “us” and “them,” between winners and losers, which Thomas challenges. In Verve, for example, the shapes of two Matissean dancers appear in black, with red-on-yellow “flashes” sewn onto their chests. They appear against a blue background as if falling backward, and are surrounded by white jagged shapes characteristic of Matisse’s cutouts; part of the Chevrolet logo is visible amid the stitching. While echoing the racial (and state) violence that has long gripped the United States, the work also gestures toward the (often vicious) divisions inscribed into any corporate field driven by branded competition.

Stephanie Bailey