Antsy types who usually skip the video art at Michigan State University’s Broad Art Museum might want to slow down, sit on a bench for six minutes and lose themselves in a deeply moving video by South African-American artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi.
The video is part of a muscular new exhibit, “Resistance Training: Arts, Sports, and Civil Rights,” that deftly keeps several balls in the air, from MSU sports history to the role of sports in the struggle for civil rights to the celebration of sheer physical exuberance.
Nkosi’s video captures 28 young, Black female gymnasts in the unbearably charged moment before leaping into action. Relentless close-ups zoom in on the athletes’ faces, aflame with determination, fear, anticipation, fighting spirit and inner strength.
“Resistance Training” makes you want to fight, fight, fight for the Green and White, and to root for sports as a uniquely human endeavor, but damn, it can be bruising at times.
Nestled next to the uplifting gymnast video is a quilt from the Teal Quilt Project, delivered to survivors of the sexual assaults inflicted by former MSU and USA Gymnastics sports doctor Larry Nassar.
The juxtaposition sums up the ups and downs of sports culture — not only at MSU but everywhere.
The standout performance of “Resistance Training,” as the sports commentators say, is artist Glenn Kaino’s double-mirrored, infinitely stretching lightbox, “Salute (Lineage).” Kaino made a cast of Olympic athlete Tommie Smith’s defiant right arm — the black-gloved arm that Smith raised in protest during his gold medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. A mirror box multiplies the arm into hundreds of arms, stretching into an unseen distance.
The fusion of art, sports and protest is explored further in three absorbing transparencies by Japanese-German-American artist Kota Ezawa, depicting San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee before a game to protest unequal treatment and violence against Black people in America.
Ezawa’s work is understated — you have to hunt for Kaepernick among the players, coaches and other figures on the sidelines — but the fine-line work and delicate coloration, illuminated by a lightbox, conjure a feeling of hushed reverence.
Artist Wendy White’s high-energy, wall-filling celebration of women athletes — champions in their sport and champions of human rights — captures the determined face of tennis star Serena Williams in several states of badassery, next to a screenprint of tennis pioneer Billie Jean King urging Congress to pass Title IX legislation.
In addition to visually celebrating champions on and off the field, “Resistance Training” hits another sweet spot where sports and art converge: material culture. Several splashy pieces are ingeniously crafted from repurposed sports equipment, like sculptor Tyrrell Winston’s giant wad of crumpled aluminum bleacher planks. What’s the point of that one, you ask? Do you always need a point?
“Driveway Drama,” a carefully placed matrix of semi-deflated basketballs collected by Winston, fills one wall like the stars on the American flag, celebrating the widespread popularity of the sport in America, from neighborhood pick-up games to the NBA Championship.
Completing a triple play, Winston gathered hundreds of fraying, half-decayed nets from hundreds of neighborhood courts into a massive fabric sculpture that dangles like a stringy chandelier in a sunny corner of the gallery. (Don’t worry, Winston replaced the old nets with brand-new ones.)
Tailgaters and sports fans who wander into the Broad on game days will find that “Resistance Training” has a strong MSU bias, following in the footsteps of several major Broad exhibits that have tapped deep into local culture.
After curating exhibits that explored Lansing automobile culture, agricultural research at MSU and other aspects of mid-Michigan life, Broad Museum interim director Steven Bridges has wanted to fold the wide world of Spartan sports into the Broad’s vision for years.
“Coming here eight years ago, I found that the presence of sports in this campus and community is incredible,” he said. “It permeates many aspects of life and is an important cultural force.”
Exhibit visitors are greeted by a giant paper-mâché Sparty head from 1954. One wall is dominated by a mural-sized 1944 photograph of sculptor Leonard Jungwirth at work on “The Spartan,” with a trio of women’s softball players looking on. A glass display contains an 1895 football helmet that looks about as protective as a cold pancake.
Instead of the fancy display cases often used in art museums, Bridges purposely placed a selection of precious sports memorabilia in three classic trophy cases. Markings on the floor mimic the scrimmage lines on football fields and markings on basketball courts.
But this is not a sports hall of fame. The themes of MSU athletics and civil rights activism frequently converge.
One wall is dominated by a photo mural of Karen Langeland, longtime MSU women’s basketball coach, giving a pep talk to the 1976-’77 team.
“They were one of the first to bring forward a Title IX lawsuit against the university for equity in regard to resources for their sport,” Bridges said. “It was a difficult and contentious moment at the time, but we look back at that moment — at that team — and what they did was really quite courageous.”
In a photo dating back to 1915, the Michigan Agricultural College football team’s first Black player, Gideon Smith, occupies a prominent position next to coach John Macklin, a sign of his significance to the team and his close relationship with Macklin. Other photos document the integration of MSU football in the 1960s under coach Duffy Daugherty and athletic director Clarence “Biggie” Munn.
Bridges loved working with the MSU Archives & Historical Collections and other university archives to assemble the material. He worked directly with Beth Mlynarek Kaufman, one of the first women to join the Spartan Marching Band in 1972, to include a case of her personal memorabilia, including her twirler’s outfit.
“There’s so much history here,” Bridges said. “For me, the joy of working in this museum — and on this campus — is that there’s not only a willingness but a lot of support for us to engage in difficult conversations.”
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