The first of this series of paintings were 2 full-size basketball courts painted in 2020 in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to honour Senator Flowers of Arkansas, whose impassioned speech of 2019 against ‘Stand Your Ground’ legislation went viral and reached London-based artist Lakwena in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement the following year.
Entitled ‘I’ll bring you flowers’, the defiantly joyful paintings use the universality of the basketball court as a canvas to speak of hope in the face of oppression, and blessing through adversity.
TC: What is it about the structure of the Basket Ball court that appeals to you?
LM: I like the symmetry of the court, the boundaries that it presents. As a pattern it’s very appealing. I like the idea that it’s a bit like a map, and that ties in with themes of escapist portals to another world. I also like the notion of the basketball court as a platform or a stage, and that the players become almost like superheroes/god-like on this stage. It feels like a metaphor to me. The heights that they soar to, it’s like they’re flying, and somehow able to rise above the limitations of this world. And this is especially poignant given that basketball is indisputably dominated by African-American men, and their style of play has shaped the game. I’m always interested in connection between people, and between heaven and earth, and that’s another theme that resonates here. So for me it’s about being aspirational, dreaming, and again the connection between people, but also between heaven and earth and a higher power.
TC: Did you look at David Hammons’ work referencing Basketball?
LM: David Hammons described his installation as “an anti-basketball sculpture…”Basketball has become a problem in the black community because the kids aren’t getting an education. They’re pawns in someone else’s game. That’s why it’s called ‘Higher Goals.’ It means you should have higher goals in life than basketball.”
But my response to basketball is to see it as a celebration - on an international level - of black joy. Particularly black male joy and self-expression. Players like Allen Iverson and Dennis Rodman are a great example of this.
‘The slam dunk is a physical manifestation of black power.’ And hence it was banned in 1967 for 10 years after a year of Lew Alcindor dominating the game.
‘The dunk is one of basketball’s great crowd pleasers, and there is no good reason to give it up except that this and other n*****s were running away with the sport.’ Lew Alcindor
TC: How do the Somerset House Aerial BB Paintings differ from those that will be in your forthcoming solo show at Vigo?
LM: I wanted to respond specifically to the history of Somerset House and also to the nature of the African Art fair. So I decided to add African languages into the paintings. My work is predominantly painted in English, I love English, it’s my mother tongue and the only language I speak fluently, so it will always I’m sure have prominence in my work. It’s also very much a mixed language - made up of lots of other languages, which is beautiful and partly why it is so widely spoken. It’s not too hard to learn. But I’m increasingly aware of the role that the English language has played in subjugating and oppressing others. The centering of the English language at the expense of people’s mother tongues during colonial times and beyond, is a tragedy. I read ‘Decolonising the mind’ by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, a Kenyan writer, and it really expanded my understanding of this.
The history of Somerset House and its prominence as an important cultural site in London adds significance to African languages being on these paintings. It feels like a token of respect. Like paying my respects.
And the way that we went about gathering these languages was really beautiful. My sister helped me to gather them. It was literally friends, neighbours, family, people that are in our community. And it felt very connective. It also made me feel rich, to be know that in London these languages are at our fingertips. And that’s a very beautiful thing. Coming together. A strength in unity, creating a safe space together.
Lakwena's public art commissions and installations include those at Tate, Somerset House, The Bowery (NYC) the Southbank Centre, Covent Garden, and others for MINI, Nike, UN Women and other large scale architectural installations in Munich, Miami, Dubai and London.