Noise An Arts Blog

Abdi Farah's solo show at Platform Gallery explores how American sports marketing and brand loyalty exploit the black male body

At first glance it's difficult to tell who the 'Terrible Fans' are in the Abdi Farah artwork bearing that title. The fabric sculpture is a remixed high school athletic banner, one of those large swathes of silk that trumpet championship seasons and hang from gymnasium rafters like trophy scalps. 'Terrible' is a vertical red rectangle with a border of black fringe; the name "Fairview" arches across the top, "Indians" across the bottom, ostensibly this banner's school and mascot. Sewn into the school name are a pair of chenille mascot patches, each featuring a crude caricature of a Native American man's head in profile, most familiar as the team logo of the Washington [RACIAL SLUR], the National Football League franchise in our nation's capital. Right in the center of the banner is a gaping oval hole, which Farah has lined with white fringe. It turns this void into a wide mouth.

Take a moment to let that salad of ideas get tossed in the brain, because with "America's Team," the solo exhibition at Platform Gallery that includes 'Terrible Fans,' Farah attempts to combine a few things that don't always get knotted together so intimately. In the two paintings, three works on paper, and four sculptural pieces on view, Farah is trying to use the promotional visual language of high school football—and sports, in general—to explore how organized athletics turns bodies, specifically black male bodies, into economic fodder. "America's Team" is a descent into athletic brand loyalty, where the body is both billboard and revenue stream.

Farah is the Baltimore-born, New Orleans-based artist who won the debut season of the Bravo TV series "Work of Art: The Next Great Artist," a reality game show where 14 visual artists from around the country were pitted against each other. His win came with work from the show displayed as a solo exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but the drawings, figurative paintings, and sculpture were no more an artist's singular vision than a season of "Top Chef" might produce a restaurant's menu.

"America's Team" is much more complex and rewarding, and Farah's use of high school sports as subject and material is impressive. Artists don't always turn to the sports world, and when they do, they sometime use athletic objects as visual metonymy—the repurposed sneaker sculptures of First Nations artist Brian Jungen come to mind, as do Esmaa Mohamoud's concrete basketballs. Farah is taking a deep dive into the culture of high school football, where young athletes—and, it must be noted, fans (AKA, sports consumers)—first encounter the larger visual world of American football culture.

Farah's paintings and works on paper offer a peek at some of the young men participating in this culture. In 'Mr. Football,' 'Name on the Front,' 'Teen Titan,' and 'Weary King,' Farah depicts young athletes' bodies, late adolescence flexed into athletic prowess. In 'Teen Titan' a young man sits shirtless in shorts with a towel covering his head, the fatigued slump familiar to anybody who weathered two-a-days practices in late summer. The young athlete in 'Name on the Front' stands with his arms flexed in a sleeveless shirt that identifies him as a member of the George Washington Carver football team, his mouth the curled grimace of somebody who just finished sucking air after 40-yard wind sprints. Even the mascot is feeling the burn in 'Weary King,' where the young man in what may be a puma costume is taking a breather, his outfit's head tilted back atop his own.

All of these two-dimensional pieces are proficient representations; Farah shows an adept ability to articulate sweaty skin's luminously textured surfaces. The works featuring the mascot and the high school T-shirt are subtle links to Farah's more impressive ideas here, his remixed and recontextualized high school pride banners. These items—mascots, uniforms, and their branded materials like pride banners—are the visual language of American football, from pee-wee leagues up through the multi-billion dollar NFL. Although American football got its start in the middle of the 19th century, it wasn't until the early 20th century that it started to acquire its modern rules, collateral customs, and accompanying visual signifiers.

For the purposes of this discussion, what's interesting about the changes in American football's visual language over the 20th century is that it evolves in concert with advertising, so much so that during the prosperous postwar 1950s and '60s we witness the emergence of the boldly colorful brands and marks that so dominate sports now. While the materials that Farah works with in "America's Team"—the chenille patches of varsity letterman jackets, the silk championship and school-pride banners, the block typefaces used on those banners—may originate from earlier in the sport's history, it all comes together as part of the football team marketing package during this time period. They're as much a part of that era's visual romance as large-finned cars and unfiltered cigarettes—visual signifiers of a make-believe time when America was supposedly great.

Farah's exhibition takes its title from the nickname bestowed upon the Dallas Cowboys in the late 1970s, which the franchise turned into a marketing logline over the next two decades. (As a Dallas-born Texan who grew up with a grandfather whose Cowboys fandom was sealed when Mexican-American kicker Efren Herrera joined the team in the mid-'70s, I recall this phrase appearing on everything from team calendars obtained from local grocery stores to commemorative glasses given away with fast-food burgers.) And by spotlighting this explicit connection between team and advertising in high school football, Farah makes a compelling argument for one of the byproducts of organized high school sports. As much as 20th-century education was ostensibly training young people to become American workers, sports banners and the school pride they hope to instill is training young people to become American consumers, tribally loyal to the brands of their city, town, neighborhood.

And by tweaking high school banners, Farah short circuits their customary messaging. 'Trojan Pride' looks like the kind of gold-lettering-in-green-silk banner that would be carried in front of a marching band, in this case that of the John McDonogh Senior High School in New Orleans. Farah has bent the banner's supporting rod at an obtuse angle, and the hanging silk—which includes such benign buzzwords of positivity as "colleges," "career," "community" that secondary-school marketing favors—bunches up like a damp towel. On the bottom right corner of the banner, a series of black embroidery script reading "Trojan Pride" covers the Trojan mascot advertising mark. Farah layers a number of the "Trojan Pride" embroideries atop each other, turning this into an illegible scribble. And the most instantly arresting piece in the exhibition is a large banner on which Farah layers multiple images of mascots and team logos, resulting in abstract morass. He titled it "Indescribable Beast," the pride banner that's incapable of communicating its brand.

'Twice Conquered,' a triptych of zig-zag shaped banners, is more aggressive. Each silver-lined-with-gold fringe banner commemorates a winning season of the Piscataway Iroquois, an invented school and mascot as far as Google has led me to believe. All three feature the team logo, one of those racist caricatures of a Native American common to sports teams, accompanied by the equally offensive cheer "scalp em!" rendered in green lettering on the bottom of the banner, right above where the season record is trumpeted: 10-1 in 1997; 9-2 in 2004; 11-0 in 2011.

Farah hangs these banners in a series as they might be installed in a locker room, with one unconventional addition. This victory wall is blemished by splotches of bright pink paint that runs down the fronts of the banners like the blood-red paint protesters toss on people wearing fur coats to remind them that their fashion choice is born of death. The effect is a bit jarring the longer you look: Yes, it resembles the kinds of vandalism pranks that rival high schoolers routinely perpetrate on each other, but it also resembles the culture-jamming hijacking of corporate advertising carried out by Adbusters. And the feeling 'Twice Conquered' elicits—who or what is being conquered again here?—hews closer to the latter, because, in America, we're not supposed to fuck with success or the visual integrity of the brand. Baseball may be the national pastime but football is the better metaphor for the country writ large, both in its inherent violence and fealty to our country's true religion: capitalism.

That Farah chooses a few Native American mascots for his banners and black bodies for his players in "America's Team" are unsubtle reminders that the country was founded on theft and built its economic bounty through enslaved labor. That images of both begin to appear like leitmotifs in American football advertising and marketing imagery in the postwar boom only reinforces what the fundamental cornerstones of American capitalism are. (A 2014 FiveThirtyEight post by reporter Hayley Munguia noted that of the 42,624 mascots contained in the database [it currently contains 47,853], 2,128 of them refer to Native Americans in some way, and high schools account for 92 percent of those.) Perhaps the way football, from high school on up, continues to perpetuate the plunder of the American experiment is what Farah finds so terrible in his Fairview Indians banner—that by rah-rahing from the sidelines we're choosing no-"I"-in-team competitiveness over solidarity, happily ensconced in the belief that sports are a politics-free zone. The banner's void in this case does the exact opposite of what the 'Terrible Fans' do. They cheer; it opens its mouths to let out a silent, deafening scream.

"America's Team" runs through April 29 at Platform Gallery.

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