SYRACUSE, New York — Currently on view at the Everson Museum of Art, Hoop Dreams: Basketball and Contemporary Art celebrates and confronts the multibillion-dollar global basketball industry and its cultural cachet. The exhibition features the work of 17 emerging and mid-career artists/basketball fans. Most are BIPOC, as are 82% of NBA players.
The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first leans into nostalgia and popular imagery. “HoopDreams23” by Treva Holmes, a trap earworm about basketball, drugs, and gun violence, resonates throughout the space. A series of mosaic basketballs by Jason Middlebrook includes “1955 Syracuse Nats, World Champs” (2023), commemorating the Nationals, an early NBA team.
A quilt by Michael C. Thorpe based on his elementary school “Rookie Card” (2020) and a crisp print of a player on a solid pink background by Nina Chanel Abney, “Two Years and Counting” (2018), converse with a 1957 Topps team set of Nationals basketball cards on display, with their single player-focused formats.
The exhibition’s second section reflects on the commodification and cultural influence of professional basketball. A vitrine of $1,000+ Nike Air shoes is a fulcrum for surrounding artworks. Rashid Johnson’s embroidered jersey, reading “White People ‘Heart’ Me” (2005), drolly indicates how athletic prowess ostensibly eases racial divisions. In contrast, Kota Ezawa’s digital animation “Brawl” illustrates the infamous Malice at the Palace, a fight that spilled from the court into the stands at a 2004 Indiana Pacers vs. Detroit Pistons game at the Pistons’ home arena, resulting in players and fans being labeled thugs and the NBA instating new safety rules for arena games.
Taking on gender disparity in basketball and sexism in hip-hop, Holly Bass’s satirical photographic quadriptych “NWBA” (2012) draws on imagery from Nike ads, poster art, and “old school” music videos to address uninvited sexualization and criticism of women’s bodies. The series brings attention to the NBA’s overlooked (and underpaid) sister organization, the WNBA. Bass fashioned prosthetic buttocks out of basketballs and wore them while recreating iconic sports images, effectively turning her backside into an object to be passed around and scored on.
Near Bass’s cheeky quartet are two solemn photographs by Hank Willis Thomas. “Basketball and Chain” (2003) and “And One” (2011) mix the trappings of basketball and African American chattel slavery, calling out professional sports and the physical, and mental tolls they take on players, as modern abuses of Black individuals.
Leading to the exhibition’s third section, which highlights basketball and community, Nari Ward’s “STILL WE RISE” (2020) is a hopeful response to critiques such as Thomas’s. The inspirational phrase, referencing Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise,” is spelled out in long, colorful shoelaces draped from the wall.
In a spirited finale, the Everson installed a partial basketball court with a small set of bleachers. The focal point of the halfcourt is “Respect the Call” (2023) by Jason Middlebrook, an installation featuring 30 recycled basketball hoops. Shooting HORSE inside a museum feels a little naughty, which makes it extra fun.
Above the bleachers are championship-style banners by Cheryl Pope featuring relatable statements made by NYC youth basketball players. Some radiate confidence (“I Feel Like a Leader,” 2017), while others reveal self-doubt and criticism (“I Don’t Try Hard Enough,” 2016).
The exhibition’s final work, “The Park” (2018), is a wall-sized projected video by Ari Marcopoulos. The video conveys the feeling of hanging out in a park under a shade tree, watching a handful of people play a pickup game. The effect is relaxing and reminds the viewer that, despite the professional sport’s commercialism and culture of affluence, and associated issues of race and class, basketball can still bring people together. It’s a humbling conclusion to an exhibition that both celebrates and critiques a game that has grown into a global mega-industry.
Hoop Dreams: Basketball and Contemporary Art continues at the Everson Museum of Art (401 Harrison Street, Syracuse, New York) through May 21. The exhibition was curated by Elizabeth Dunbar, director and CEO of the museum.