Modupeola Fadugba, Pink Honey, 2018, acrylic, graphite, and ink on burnt paper, 51 × 72".

Modupeola Fadugba, Pink Honey, 2018, acrylic, graphite, and ink on burnt paper, 51 × 72".

Modupeola Fadugba

Had Modupeola Fadugba’s latest exhibition, “Dreams from the Deep End,” opened in New York (where it drew its inspiration and subject matter), it would have been hard to see it as about anything but the racial politics of water and swimming in America. With a series of gold-leaf-on-burnt-paper paintings hung on ocean-blue gallery walls (all accompanied by a documentary short), Fadugba told the story of the Harlem Honeys and Bears, an age-fifty-and-older synchronized swim team. Many of the team’s members are in their seventies and eighties, and most began to swim for the first time only in their later years. Fadugba was inspired by historian Jeff Wiltse’s 2007 book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

It wasn’t so long ago that public pools in the United States were racially segregated. After laws upholding this divide were reversed, local governments began privatizing pools, putting them out of reach of the black population; many pools in black communities simply closed down. As a result, according to several studies, African Americans are less likely than their white compatriots to know how to swim, even today.

But this was not the only story Fadugba wanted to tell. The exhibition took place in Ghana, a country still cognizant of a connected but different history of water. The ancestors of today’s Ghanaians were seen as desirable merchandise, to be exchanged for mirrors, gunpowder, and palm oil, and traded across the Atlantic Ocean. Fadugba’s exhibition also opened the weekend of Chale Wote, a street art festival that often explores colonial identities and that climaxes in Jamestown, an ocean-side district that still has structures that have stood since the time of slavery—a time when black bodies were sent in chains across the water from which now, centuries later, they are cut off by chain-link fences and signs reading PRIVATE MEMBERS ONLY.

Ultimately, Fadugba’s work is an attempt to immortalize its subjects. She spent weeks with them, at barbecues, on bus rides, crossing streets gingerly, at their pace, hoping the WALK sign would not turn red before they reached the other side. The paintings, she has said, were collaborations between her and the group. The swimmers’ influence in the works showed significantly. Though Fadugba usually makes abstract figures, she changed tack to more realist ones on the Harlem Honeys and Bears’ advice. They felt that was how they should be represented.

In one work, Pink Honey, 2018, washed in rosy acrylic, we saw a woman, her white hair wrapped in a bun high above her head, perched poolside with one knee raised, on a ledge clearly marked DEEP. In real life one might watch this scene with concern—worried that there might be a fall and then a flailing in ten feet of water—but the woman, whom Fadugba now calls her god-grandmother, returns the gaze of the viewer with a smile, unfazed. In another work, a portrait of one of the more accomplished Harlem Bears, a swimmer sits on the edge of the pool, this time in pitch darkness, legs in the water, visibly, subtly triumphant. On his neck hangs evidence of success in his chosen sport: shiny gold medals. He, too, is smiling.

These black bodies in the water, on its edge—only now catching up on the joys of a sport to which they should have had access decades ago—may come as a surprise. One might ask them, How do you learn a physically strenuous sport at such an age? With grace, as Fadugba shows. There is no uncertainty in her brushstrokes or in her subjects’ poses—only freedom.

In one of the scenes from the documentary short that played in the gallery, we see one of the Harlem Honeys responding to Fadugba’s question about how the water makes her feel. Giving Fadugba and the camera a warm, generous grin, the woman says, “I’m going to be young forever.”

Ayodeji Rotinwa