The stretch of yellow is what catches my eye. Like a boomerang in mid-air. Or a pair of wings. I stop typing the address into the WeTransfer email bar and look at the image next to it. It’s a painting of a gymnast in a custard-coloured leotard with her arms stretched wide. Her face is turned upwards.
Behind her sits a group of adults. I assume they are judges but the rigid table they sit behind, despite it being pastel pink – a warm colour – reminds me of The Last Supper. Not The Judgement Day but another kind. Above the image is the quote: “It’s not only the gymnasts – it’s the audience.”
I am intrigued and click on the image.
WePresent, which is WeTransfer’s editorial arm, has had interesting content for a while. I just don’t ever think about them unless I have to send a large file to someone. I need to change that. Anyway, the link took me to an interview with the artist behind the image that caught my eye: Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi. Read it.
Once on the page, the words – written by Alex Kahl – are punctuated by Thenjiwe’s series of paintings from Gymnasium. I can’t stop looking. But it’s not because I love gymnastics so much – I don’t even know the rules there. There are only two things I know about gymnastics.
One: as a child, Jean Grae couldn’t bring herself to conquer the pommel horse in beginner’s gymnastics. It’s in chapter 4 of Jean’s The State of Eh audiobook. And if you’re interested, I spoke to my rap GOAT about it during an interview years ago. If you’d like to read my piece on Jean Grae, click here.
Two: Simone Biles, if this award-winning profile by my journalism GOAT is anything to go by, is a beast.
But that’s the (non-existent, ha) extent to which I am invested in gymnastics. But being a black girl and then a black woman, though… Yeah, there are a few things I know about that. One of them is the vulnerability of a black girl in a changing body and how the gaze of grownups upon that body often serves only to bury any possibility of those changes feeling normal. You feel judged.
So, when, in the article, Thenjiwe breaks down the inspiration behind her painting, Team, I instantly know I have to share it with others. The article states:
“In one piece, titled Team, multiple cameras can be seen in the image, their lenses fixated on performers standing in a group. ‘For me, they’re so vulnerable, and I hope that if people can see the way these three cameras are unabashedly intruding on this very tender moment, they might ask themselves how their own gaze might be felt,’ Thenjiwe says. ‘And for me it’s important to remember that you’re looking at bodies, and you’re looking at bodies of young women.’ It’s hard to tell if the gymnasts in Team are celebrating or consoling each other, but either way it’s a poignant part of a series that asks questions about how just performing their craft can make these athletes so vulnerable to scrutiny and judgement.”
Thenjiwe’s gymnasts have faces, you just can’t read them. No eyes. No nose. No lips. Just black and brown circles. I’m not an art critic but I know what her art moved in me. And that is: it feels like not giving the subjects eyes or other features makes facial expression impossible to read. You can glean some insight from body language and other markers but not seeing it on a face means (to me) that the girls get to keep something for themselves. They are under constant surveillance – their every utterance and very appearance under judgement all the time. But here, they get to be and feel whatever they want and the viewer can guess but they will never truly know. In a warped way, that is a welcome break from the scrutiny.
It also makes me think about how the entire world can be embodied by the cameramen in Team and the gymnasts are all the black people across the globe who are under the world’s watch right now. The expectations set by that gaze. The way black people are embracing each other across continents (and the performances some are putting on for these moments in front of cameras). How we look inward to our community and say the names, and take action because of Collins Khosa and Breonna Taylor and many, many others. How we demand justice.
This is obviously an observation that is affected by the current climate and it comes way after Thenjiwe created this series. It may even be reaching on my part. I’ve signed petitions and written to the military ombudsman. I’m open to other ways of being useful so I guess the extended meaning I am now ascribing to Team may also be me trying to make sense of the hopelessness I feel right now. That’s unfair. And I definitely never want to minimise black girl pain so I’ll stop here until I can articulate my thoughts more clearly.
What I want you to go and look at is the Gymnasium series and see if it moves anything in you. Thenjiwe has a stunning video walkthrough up on her site. If you check it out, let me know what you think in the comments?
I’ll come back here to check your comments after I send this WeTransfer.