Sport can isolate. Because of their setting, timelines, and storylines, they offer a completely separate space that the real world doesn’t always get into. Some fans embrace the detachment, treating sport as a willful escape. Where this approach becomes problematic is when it tries to forcefully separate real-world problems from the real people whose day jobs happen to be elite athletes.
Especially in the NBA, where black men make up the majority of athletes, detachment from the social, economic and political issues affecting the world is largely impossible. We’ve seen it in recent seasons through social justice movements and player protests, and through players’ honest and raw expressions of grief and frustration when real-life tragedy drowns out the mundane details of a basketball season.
That’s why Dis/Mantle—an Afro-Futurist immersive exhibition featuring the work of visual artist Gordon Shadrach that the Toronto Raptors partnered with the City of Toronto’s Awakenings program as a community partner to bring to the table—makes such a compelling case for intersection. The exhibition, co-curated by Umbereen Inayet and Shadrach, takes place throughout Toronto’s historic Spadina Museum, an 1866 estate and sprawling compound that remains intact in the heart of the city. The show presents an alternate history in which Louisa Pipkin, a freedom seeker fleeing enslavement in the United States and working as a laundress for the estate’s former homeowners, instead owned the estate herself.
Most of the rooms in the house’s two-story footprint have been remodeled with installations and live components, such as: B. A culinary feature by Toronto chef Roger Mooking, who showcased Afro-Caribbean ingredients in the on-site kitchen and served dishes throughout the property. Herbalist Alessandra De Oliveira started a small pharmacy with plants and tinctures traditionally found in Afro-Caribbean culture; Ceramic artists Sharon Norwood and Christine Nnawuchi exhibited work in table settings and depicted objects that may have been significant in Mrs Pipkin’s life.
However, the most prominent and conspicuous works on display were the large-scale portraits of Shadrach. Of the 17 oil and acrylic panels, seven featured current Raptors players. Shadrach, who worked in a studio to complete the work, insinuated allusions to decorative features—wallpaper patterns, lighting—in each painting, making it appear as if each had stood where it hung for decades.
John Wiggins, the Raptors’ vice president of organizational culture and inclusion, admitted that he walked past some paintings on his first tour. “I walked right past Dalano’s painting,” Wiggins laughs, “because he looks like he’s been here since 1866.”
All paintings feature the continuity of a strong red line to represent redlining, the discriminatory practice that denied services to residents of certain neighborhoods because of their race or ethnicity.
“The idea with the house is that it’s supposed to be a house that significant people could have walked by and people would have spoken to, or maybe their direct descendants of the extended Pipkins family, so the idea is that these are characters that are would have been in the narrative of what we’re trying to create here,” Shadrach told Dime at the opening of Dis/Mantle. “So whether they were grandchildren or nieces and nephews or whether they would have been people who would have come to fight with the abolitionists is up to the viewer to decide, but that was the inspiration for the portraits.”
The inclusion of young Raptors players was the hope of the Wiggins, who had heard of Shadrach’s work and visited the artist at his studio before Covid.
“I loved the way he spoke about black history and Canadian history through the visions and images of athletes,” Wiggins recalls. “As I sat there and listened to him talk about where he got the inspiration and the artwork from, it was just a compelling piece to not only understand someone’s perspective but also to hear the story that they were showing.” And I just thought everybody needs to hear this and they need to hear from him.”
The Raptors featured on the show – Chris Boucher, Dalano Banton, Justin Champgnie, Gary Trent Jr., Malachi Flynn and Precious Achuwa – are some of the youngest and newest (as of the 2021-22 season) players on the team. Shadrach says he felt the team wanted to find these athletes and help them immerse themselves in the local community.
“So the focus was to include these players as a stepping stone to building something,” says Shadrach.
Wiggins chuckles as he admits that “the Raptors bring people to the party,” but knowing he could capitalize on the franchise’s popularity, particularly among its younger fans in town, with the show there was a tangible support that the team an important topic.
“I think this just goes to show how powerful arts and culture are in storytelling, teaching and explaining,” says Wiggins, acknowledging that partnering with Shadrach is what prompted the Raptors franchise to expand the realm of contemporary further explore art.
“Everyone doesn’t just come to a basketball game, everyone doesn’t just learn by listening, doesn’t learn by being yelled at, so we knew there were other basketball fans who were just as interested in arts and culture. We know there’s within.” of the different demographics we have, there are different types of fans,” Wiggins continues. “Young people also learn through art. So that was very important for us.”
The ongoing COVID pandemic has complicated Shadrach’s typical process for his portraits. Due to city restrictions, Toronto players could not sit with the artist in his studio, and later, when restrictions were eased, schedules did not allow for that. Photo shoots were also forbidden. Shadrach got to know each of his subjects through their social media presences or the photos they sent him, where little glimpses of their personality emerged. Despite all the articulation and flexibility required, Shadrach says he can’t imagine the portraits or the process being any different now.
Since the opening of Dis/Mantle coincided with the now infamous LA summer runs put together by Toronto’s own development coach Rico Hines, none of the show’s players could be there. However, Wiggins stresses that when the time comes, whether before or after Raptors training camp, the team will make arrangements “that our entire organization – coaches, staff, front office – come out and really just take some time to gain experience.” collect it.”
When asked if he will be in attendance, Schadrach beams: “I hope so!” He shares Wiggins’ take on what the exhibition, which runs until the end of 2022, can mean for the Toronto contemporary art team’s commitment, especially in terms of the broader impact on local communities.
“What’s really fascinating is developing something with a really strong artistic angle. It’s not always just about the sport,” says Shadrach with a smile. “Not that sport is bad. I’m just saying it’s nice to see a wider range of access and accessibility for different people in the community.”
That sports and basketball can provide a gateway to art in a city that loves it—and that art, in turn, can transform history into something visceral, experientially accessible—shows the power and necessity of not just examining the past, but reinventing it the future. Basketball becomes a bridge, art a vehicle. Isolation is disappearing and new communities and fans are emerging.