High art and pro sports collide in Toronto artists Esmaa Mohamoud and Bryan Espiritu's sculpture marking the NBA champs' 25th anniversary
As a child, Esmaa Mohamoud wanted to step out in a Raptors jersey, but the artist and lifelong basketball fan’s mother told her to put on a dress. She obliged and kept the jersey on top. Her mother persisted, saying, “You gotta take it off because you’re not one of the boys.”
That moment inspired Mohamoud’s One Of The Boys, a series of ball gowns made from Raptors jerseys that reflected her own relationship to the recent NBA champions: a tension between extremely masculine and feminine. Two Black men modelled the elaborate dresses when they went on display at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 2017 as part of the group show, Every. Now. Then: Reframing Nationhood.
“The work falls at an intersection of many things,” says Mohamoud. “But one of the first and foremost was this idea that only particular men are able to play sports. And what bodies actually get to exist in the frontline. It’s not like there aren’t gay men playing basketball.”
Today, Mohamoud is working with the Raptors. Along with Bryan Espiritu, the pair is collaborating on a 14-foot sculpture based on the team’s 25th anniversary logo that will debut at Nuit Blanche. (NOW got a look at the piece in its unfinished state.)
The installation, Peace To The Past, Reach For The Future, depicts two hands: one throwing up deuces, like a peace sign the other palm open as if ready to grab something, or everything. Together, the hands are gesturing a two and a five, celebrating the Raptors’ anniversary but also reflecting the ideas, emotions and preoccupations of the two artists.
Espiritu’s art regularly tackles mental health. Mohamoud often examines the relationship between sports and Black bodies, gender norms and rigid understandings of sexuality. That’s why both artists pushed back after execs at Raptors owner Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment (MLSE) initially floated an idea to make one hand male and the other female.
“All types of people love basketball and we didn’t want to exclude anybody by gendering hands,” explains Mohamoud. “There are so many people who exist outside of the heteronormative understandings of male and female. So we just wanted to be inclusive.”
Launching the logo with an installation at a public fest like Nuit Blanche, a scheme MLSE cooked up with the city’s programming supervisor Umbereen Inayet, is one way the team is continuing the galvanizing momentum that spread nationwide last season, when the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors to claim the NBA championship for the first time.
The all-night festival, which stretches from Queen West to Scarborough, attracts upward of a million visitors, nearly a fifth of whom come from outside the city. The Raptors monument, which the public can check out at Queen and Bay before it moves to Scotiabank Arena for the basketball season – embodies what Nuit Blanche has become: a bridge between art world and populist spectacle, corporate branding and community celebration.
MLSE execs hope the simple gesture will catch on among fans during the season and is releasing videos and animations featuring a variety of hands throwing up the two-five – no two hands will belong to the same person. Inayet isn’t off when she sums up the collaboration as “high art mashed with the street.”
Peace To The Past, Reach For The Future, which was still a work-in-progress at press time, will be on display at Queen and Bay during Nuit Blanche.
Peace To The Past
Espiritu and Mohamoud come from different worlds. The former founded the brand Legends League, which started as a blog but also includes a clothing line and artwork. He isn’t formally trained and cut his teeth designing covers for mixtapes (like Drake’s Comeback Season) before working with brands like Nike. Mohamoud graduated from OCAD University and is a rising name in the art world.
The hands in the Raptors sculpture represent past and future. Espiritu’s looks back his grey marbled “two” is covered in intricate raised patterning and his signature typeface. It’s his own coded take on the English language that he has used for years, even if his art buyers do not understand what it means.
Espiritu began developing the typeface as a child, when he attended Mother Cabrini Catholic School in Etobicoke. Over a period of about two weeks, he says, he was locked in a storage room for entire days as punishment for violent behaviour. While inside, as he felt his brain going to mush, he developed a language only he could understand.
“I started writing down how I was feeling,” says Espiritu. “And I started to get this fear and paranoia. If I’m writing this, someone can read it and have access to the things that I’m feeling. So I started writing in a way that was not legible. It was this coded way for me to rewrite English.”
The artist has been very open about his troubled past, which includes domestic violence, run-ins with the law and an ongoing struggle with mental health. He spent more time with therapists than with his parents. His first solo gallery show in 2011, Because The Kids Don’t Play, was a response to a robbed childhood and featured Disney icons in graphically violent scenarios.
When Espiritu, who is Filipino, started Legends League as a blog in 2007, he was the rare man of colour in Toronto discussing his emotions and vulnerability publicly, writing about his experiences with domestic violence and his mental health. He’s happy that NBA players are increasingly willing to do the same.
Last year, former Raptor DeMar DeRozan tweeted about his depression. That inspired Kevin Love from the Cleveland Cavaliers to write about his own mental health struggles. The NBA responded by featuring both men in promotions for mental health while making encouraging efforts for players to have ready access to therapists.
“Everyone should be in therapy,” says Espiritu. “It’s like personal training for your brain and your emotions.”
Espiritu also brings up Ron Artest, the NBA star who once attacked a belligerent fan in a notorious brawl in 2004 that’s sometimes referred to as Malice at the Palace. Artest, who has since changed his name to Metta World Peace, was among the first to discuss the trauma he experienced as a child and the successes he found through therapy. Artest thanked his psychiatrist in his first post-game interview after winning the NBA Finals with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2010.
“I connect very deeply to something like that,” says Espiritu, referencing the efforts to de-stigmatize mental health conversations in athletics, particularly among people of colour.
“The conversation around mental health that somebody like DeMar puts out there,” he adds, “is going to affect the people who are attached to the sport your homies in the neighbourhood playing basketball, everyone striving to be a baller or rapper or whatever. It’s a point of access. They go, ‘Oh shit, this is somebody that I aspire to be like saying something that I might also be experiencing, but don’t feel comfortable talking about it.’”
For Espiritu, the Nuit Blanche monument is not only a celebration of how far the Raptors have come, but also how far he has come through his struggles with mental health.
His coded language is interspersed with iconography familiar to Raptors fans, like lightning bolts, triangular shapes, player numbers from old jerseys, even the tread of a basketball. It represents the discipline it took to get this far – both in terms of the Raptors championship and communal successes in talking about mental health – and the gratitude we should have for this moment.
“On your way to be great don’t forget to be grateful,” says Espiritu, who believes the monument is not just about the championship, but something Toronto can hold forever. “If we have a bad season, we can look back and be like ‘we did that, though.’ We know we’re capable. That works on varying degrees with our own mental health and our own personal success.
“My life was real shit before,” Espiritu continues. The Raptors sculpture is also a highlight he can simply hold on to, even if one day he is forced to go back to his old job, fixing “the wickedest bagels” at Tim Hortons. “If I never do anything like this again, I’m still going to be grateful that it happened.”
Reach For The Future
Mohamoud’s hand sculpture is imprinted with three chevrons, a shape that appears on select Raptors jerseys. They’re stacked one above the other, pointing up.
“The concept that revolved around the future was all signs point north,” says the artist. Her piece will have a blackened chrome surface so that the fans can see themselves reflected in it.
“So much of what this franchise is about is this fan base that goes nuts over our team,” Mohamoud adds. “I wanted Torontonians to really feel the love and support back.”
Much of Mohamoud’s work revolves around the disposability of Black bodies in the sports world. In 2018, for the installation Chain Gang, she strung together football cleats on a chain for Untitled (No Fields), she hung chains off player uniforms, referencing a new slavery in the sporting world. For 2016’s Heavy, Heavy (Hoop Dreams), she created 60 concrete basketball sculptures, weighing 30 pounds each, to consider all those whose hopes to play basketball were crushed by the weight of circumstance.
Her 2018 piece A Seat Above The Table, which is on display at the AGO, was a tribute to Warren Moon, the only Black quarterback to make it into the Hall of Fame. The towering 10-foot black rattan peacock chair is a testament to how much better Moon had to be, as a Black player, to be considered a quarterback, never mind a Pro Football Hall of Fame member. Moon’s plight is something Mohamoud relates to as an artist.
“I have been raised with this mentality that I had to work twice as hard to be half as good as a white person,” she says. “So many Black people get a seat at the table. And that seat’s a silent seat. You’re actually not doing anything at that table. I wanted to push this idea of ‘fuck that table, I’m rising above it.’”
Sitting at a table with mainstream sports types is a timely topic.
I ask Mohamoud about Jay-Z, whose recent partnership with the NFL sparked concerns that he sold out Colin Kaepernick, the football player many say was blackballed by the league over his anthem-kneeling protests against police brutality. Under the deal, the rapper’s RocNation company will produce the Super Bowl halftime show and head up the league’s social and racial justice initiative, called Inspire Change.
Critics have said Jay-Z is capitalizing on the Kaepernick protest to make money and give the league’s owners, many of whom are Trump donors, political cover. Others argue the move is part of a long-term plan that involves owning a team, which could sign dissenting players like Kaepernick.
“You can’t change things standing from the outside,” says Mohamoud, who admits she’s not privy to all the conversations around Jay-Z’s NFL deal, but sees his attempt at owning a team as promising. “Sometimes you just got to work from the inside and try to change things at the core rather than stand from the outside and criticize. He might have said the wrong things, but I like to believe that his heart is in the right place.”
Mohamoud’s career is evolving in a similar way. She was challenging gender norms with her Raptors jersey dresses in the AGO’s group show, which was curated to offer a more critical take on the Canada 150 celebrations. Now she is working with MLSE to create a piece that reflects the Raptors’s broad fan base.
Working with a major brand didn’t feel like an impediment for the two artists, both of whom say they had as much freedom as they normally would.
“I’ve seen [NBA] players stand up for shit and the ownership and the league seems to understand the importance of the players and their connection directly to the people,” explains Espiritu. “There’s a lot of room, more than creatives give themselves credit for, to stand up to shit. The corporations need the creatives. They need the people.”