Lakwena Maciver’s paintings celebrate black joy on the basketball court
You may have come across Lakwena Maciver’s “Afrofuturist Portals to Utopia” on sites in London, Paris, Munich, Los Angeles, Miami and many other places. His electrifying works often appear as murals occupying public spaces – vibrant with color and delivering unifying messages of hope and optimism amid bold, dynamic designs. In recent years, his large-scale commissions and installations have emboldened venues such as the Tate, Somerset House, Southbank Centre, Covent Garden and The Bowery in New York with his distinct and vibrant visions of “redemption, decolonization and paradise”. .
His latest series Jump Paintings (currently on display at the Vigo Gallery) sees the London-based artist focus on basketball and the exalted heroes of the basketball court. In a series of abstract portraits that almost look like modern spares, Maciver canonizes iconic actors whose “beauty and magic” seem almost transcendent.
“I love the notion of the basketball court as a platform or a stage where the players become almost like superheroes…The heights they soar…it’s like they’re flying, able somehow to rise above the limits of this world,” she explains. in a press release from the gallery. “It’s especially poignant to me given that basketball is unquestionably dominated by African Americans and their style of play has shaped the game.”
Maciver, whose father is Ugandan and who spent her early childhood years in East Africa, became fascinated by the politicization of the game. “The ‘slam-dunk’ for example, one of the great pleasures of basketball, could be seen as a physical manifestation of black power, so much so that it was banned in 1967 for ten years, coincidentally after a year of Lew Alcindor dominating the game,” she explains. “I see these paintings as an opportunity to celebrate black power, joy and self-expression.”
Take a look at the gallery above to see some of the artwork from the Jump Paintings series. Below, we talk to Lakwena Maciver about fame seen on the basketball court, the controversial history of the slam-dunk, and the recurring motifs that appear in her work as powerful hieroglyphics.
Please could you start by talking to us Jump Paintings and how did the idea for this series evolve?
Lakwena Maciver: It’s a story that actually begins a few years ago in 2017 when I was asked to paint a juvenile detention center in Arkansas by curator Charlotte Dutoit. A few years later, we were on lockdown, and Black Lives Matter had gained a lot of momentum, and I came across a film that had gone viral of Senator Flowers from Arkansas speaking in court about ‘hold your ground’ laws ” and wanting more time to discuss the matter. She was very passionate and sort of went wild. I was really moved and inspired by that, and it resonated in part because of the relationship I now had with Arkansas.
Anyway, a few months later, I was asked to create artwork for two basketball courts in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Senator Flowers came to mind. So I named the works I will bring you flowers, in his honor and, in a way, to pay homage to the African-American community of Arkansas. So it made me think of basketball…its place in culture, but also, like so much of my work, the possibility of it being used to say something deeper about life.
What is your affinity with basketball and what do you think we can learn from the history and culture of the sport?
Lakwena Maciver: I have a good friend, Sammy Gunnell, who is a basketball archivist and curator. Throughout this journey, he was someone with whom I had conversations and exchanges to better understand basketball.
What strikes me is the fact that the game resonates with so many people internationally. Michael Jordan is probably one of the most famous people in the world. There is this mixture of sporting excellence, athleticism, but also incredible beauty in the way the players play. And I think that’s what attracts people. You can’t ignore the dominance of black people in the game and how they have shaped the whole culture around it. Basketball wouldn’t have this beauty and magic without these players.
I don’t know what we can learn from this, but I know it’s amazing and it’s something I want to dwell on and celebrate, especially in the context of so much negativity about black men in particular in culture. So that’s a big part of what these paintings represent in part for me.
Could you elaborate on what you described as “the connection between heaven and earth and ourselves as individuals to a higher power”?
Lakwena Maciver: The way players play…the heights they rise to. There’s something that seems almost supernatural about it. A lot of my work is about a yearning for heaven, so I’m interested in using basketball as a way to talk about it. I think that’s part of the reason the game resonates with people the way it does – it touches something inside of them that also yearns for something beyond the here and now. You get a little taste of glory when you watch these players. And that’s what interests me.
“You can’t ignore the dominance of black people in the game and how they have shaped the whole culture around it. Basketball wouldn’t have this beauty and magic if it wasn’t for these players” – Lakwena Maciver
I didn’t know that the slam-dunk was forbidden! Could you tell us more about its history and significance and why it is such a meaningful and charged movement on the basketball court?
Lakwena Maciver: It’s an incredible gesture. And it’s now basically synonymous with basketball, isn’t it? Well, there was a player called Lew Alcindor who completely dominated the game, and I think it was mostly because of his dunking skill. After that season, the slam dunk was banned and it lasted for ten years until 1976. It is widely speculated that this was to prevent him from continuing to dominate the game. At the time, many of the people who dunked were black players like Lew Alcindor. It’s a familiar theme that a black person excels and white power structures suppress that. And that’s generally believed to have happened here. I mean, it’s so political, isn’t it.
Could you tell us about some of the symbols and texts that appear in this series?
Lakwena Maciver: Hands are a pattern that I start repeating in my work. They sum up so much about connection… helping, reaching, touching.
The dove is another. The dove that I used in ‘Larry’ and ‘Magic’ is very similar to the dove emoji. I love that it’s now part of our visual language, and a dove is very widely understood to mean freedom, peace, but also return.
In terms of text, I was thinking of words relating to each of the actors that also tied into larger, deeper themes that interested me.
Could you tell us about the role scale plays in your work and what draws you so often to larger works?
Lakwena Maciver: I like working on a large scale. I’m interested in speech and the bigger the scale, the more people will see something, and often the more impact it can have. I am interested in public space and its monopolization by advertising. Obviously that’s changing more and more as things get more and more digital, but I love real-world physics. The ladder is just a way to connect with people.
How would you describe the recurring themes in your work? How do you think this series is a continuation of those ideas?
Lakwena Maciver: I’m interested in redemption, decolonization and paradise. That’s what they indicate – they’re a little glimpse of it. When I talk about decolonization as a theme in my work, I mean it very much in relation to colonialism and racism, which especially resonates in those paintings where part of the intention is to celebrate black excellence and joy. . But I also go beyond. I also understand decolonization in terms of absolute freedom of mind, body, soul and land. That’s what really interests me. Not that I’ve seen it yet, but I’ve glimpsed it.
What would you most like people to take home with them after living your Jump Paintings?
Lakwena Maciver: I guess if they are able to see them in real life, just to sit with them for a bit. That’s what I like to do. These paintings are very physical, very tactile. To savor. Probably the most visually rich works I’ve done so far. But I’m actually trying to point to something beyond the physical. So for people to sit down with them and try to look beyond the surface…to see what comes to mind and heart.
Jump Paintings by Lakwena Maciver is at Vigo Gallery until February 28, 2022