In 2020, as a muralist much in demand, Lakwena Maciver (Features, 28 August 2020) created large-scale paintings on two public basketball courts in Martin Luther King Jr Park, Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Working with the principal component shapes of the court, her bold, vibrant design combined geometric patterns with acid-bright colours and dynamic, emancipatory texts.
Her “Jump Paintings” translate the success of the Pine Bluff installation on to wood chosen to match that used for basketball courts. Each painting is an abstract portrait of an inspiring basketball player — Magic Johnson, Dennis Rodman, etc. — and is the same height as the player depicted.
Text frames the court depicted in each painting, as adverts frame a real court. Each painted court features a centre circle, three-point line, and the paint. Around these, Lakwena positions shapes, text, colours, and images that symbolise the player in question. These are layered paintings, which also use glitter and stickers coated in polyurethane to create a pop feel and a finish that glistens and gleams.
The Pine Bluff courts honoured Senator Stephanie Flowers, whose impassioned 2019 speech against “Stand Your Ground” legislation went viral and inspired Lakwena in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement the next year. Through basketball-related expressions such as “see me shoot,” “make it rain,” and quotations from “Still I Rise”, by the Arkansas resident and poet Maya Angelou: “bury me down / still I rise” and “watch me flower”, Lakwena turns this court into a canvas speaking of hope in the face of oppression, and blessing through adversity.
She pulls the same trick with the “Jump” works, which she describes as paintings “about being aspirational, dreaming, and the connection between people, but also about the link between heaven and earth and ourselves as individuals in relation to a higher power”.
Lakwena has also said that she likes “the notion of the basketball court as a platform or a stage where the players become almost like superheroes. . . The heights that they soar to. . . it’s like they are flying, somehow able to rise above the limitations of this world.” Similarly, the artist Arthur Jafa has suggested that “black folks have an acute sensitivity to . . . vectors, or spatial arrays.”
One place this can be seen is in basketball: “A player (both moving and in motion) from almost anywhere on the floor can launch the ball into a trajectory where it’ll arc, descend, and go through the hoop.” Jafa explains: the person throwing the ball has “to calculate on the fly the speed and trajectory at which that object has to be launched so that it’s going to land in a predesignated point”. So, “You have to perceive these two different things (what it’s supposed to be doing and what it’s in fact doing) simultaneously. It’s really about flow — flow through figures. . . And this dovetails with [the] distinction between motion and movement.”
Lakwena’s paintings exhibit similar motion and movement, something that comes as no surprise, given that “basketball is indisputably dominated by African Americans, and their style of play has shaped the game.”
Another installation by Lakwena which gives a sense of being raised up into the air, heavenward, as a contemporary vision of paradise — a haven above the turbulent world below, an oasis of coloured calm — is Back in the Air: A Meditation on Higher Ground. This installation transforms a half-acre roof terrace on top of Temple Station between the Thames and the Strand into The Artist’s Garden. The phrase “Nothing Can Separate Us” seen at the entrance is a powerful spiritual message with multi-layered meaning: profound love, physical and spiritual connections, and the strength of unseen bonds.
Lakwena says that she creates painted prayers and meditations, although her kaleidoscopic works, which zing and fizz with colour, life, and energy, are not what most would imagine by simply reading that phrase without having seen her work. The vibrancy of adornment in her work signifies value and glory, while her content is wholly future-orientated, looking for a future that is higher, deeper, fuller, sweeter, older, newer, bolder, brighter, and more glorious.
With the “Jump Paintings” and the Back in the Air installation, she brings us a glimpse of earthly paradise, inspiring us to seek and soar to higher ground by means of a higher power.
“Lakwena Maciver: Jump Paintings” is at Vigo Gallery, 7 Masons Yard, London SW1, until 28 February. www.vigogallery.com