- Glorious Bones:Esmaa Mohamoud's Football Fabulation
Multidisciplinary artist Esmaa Mohamoud's football installation Glorious Bones (2018) (see fig. 1) stages and enacts racial and sporting dramas about the aesthetic interplay between athletics and blackness in visual culture. A critical analysis of the installation reveals a constellation of sporting imaginaries that configure, constitute, and challenge one's perceptions of race, sports, and media. Specifically, Glorious Bones' cinematic inscription—a quotation from the football film Remember the Titans (Boaz Yakin, 2000)—textually negotiates the football metaphors and racial fantasies displayed in both the gallery space and sports cinema's public imagination. In this essay, I attend to the visual and sporting economy represented in Mohamoud's work to address how dominant mythologies of blackness within sports culture industries circulate through and are contested by insurgent symbology and discursivity.
The installation's commemorative title gestures toward the racialized histories of osteology and the racist theories about Black athletic aptitude that circulate broadly in the public imagination. "Research about 'black' bones generated within the fields of craniometry, forensic anthropology, and sport science, affects ideas about the suitability of 'black' bodies for collision and aquatic sports," Jaime Schultz explains. "The belief that people of African descent have thicker, denser bones presupposes an attribute that allegedly guards against fracture but impedes buoyancy: 'black' bones are less likely to break and more likely to sink. The mythology of strong black bones stokes ideas about black 'hardiness,' an imaginary that at once dehumanizes groups and individuals as it holds them up as superhuman beings."1 Glorious Bones ossifies sports science's fraught imaginary, rendering Black athletes' skeletal forms as "racial icons" that oscillate between veneration and denigration on and off the playing field.2
The installation features forty-six mounted football helmets uniformed in a variety of colorful African wax print textiles. Each customized outer shell "highlights the richness of African culture within the context of North American sports" and exposes the injurious commodification of Black athletes by racial capitalism for mass entertainment.3 Attuned to the current conditions facing football players in amateur and professional leagues, Mohamoud directly evokes the psychic and physical brutality of the sport by altering the internal structural elements of the football gear. With the inside padding removed from each helmet, the protective equipment is now hollowed and "decorative rather than functional," emphasizing football's pretense of safety and alluding to the traumatic head injuries endemic to the contact sport's bruising violence.4 This laborious extraction also underscores the dangerous and exploitative aspects of football's market economy, adding new visceral dimensions to the popular sports idiom: No guts, no glory! The vibrantly repurposed football helmets are set atop hot-rolled steel. The "metal stands are metonyms for the players who wear them"; their magnificent heads are held high in Mohamoud's football fabulation.5 As the "ghost players" huddle together, they are grounded by the scattered earth covering each base and the gallery floor.6 The installation's sporting spectacle is multivalent: these are players and totems; this is a gridiron and a burial ground; these heads are on spikes and on pedestals; they are aligned and alienated.
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Rendering the celebration and subjugation of Black athletic prowess on the football field, Glorious Bones' material elements are discursively bracketed in the exhibition space with black vinyl text on the white gallery walls surrounding the display (see fig. 2). The fine print reveals a quote from the sports drama Remember the Titans. Based on true events, the football biopic is set in 1971 during the desegregation of public schools in Alexandria, Virginia. Remember the Titans replays the lesser-known story of T. C. Williams High School's first Black football coach, Herman Boone (Denzel Washington), and its newly racially integrated team, the Titans. According to film critic Roger Ebert, the clichéd Disney sports drama champions racial harmony so much that "victories over [End Page 69]
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