Black Gymnasts On The Canvas

An interview with the artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi about Gymnasium

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This newsletter has been in the works for over a year. Late last September, about a week after I started this whole newsletter enterprise, I was in LA doing some reporting for a story about the activists who are working to end the Olympic Games and I had breakfast with Jennifer Doyle, an English professor at UC-Riverside whose scholarship has focused on art, gender theory, and visual culture. She also has a website called The Sport Spectacle, where she writes mostly about gender and sports, which is how I first became familiar with her work and scholarship. (This piece she did on Caster Semenya back in 2016 is absolutely stellar.)

Anyway, during that breakfast, I told her that I had recently gone to the Whitney Biennial where I had seen Jeanette Mundt’s series of gymnastics themed paintings. After I showed her the photos I had taken at the exhibition—I would include them here if only, selfies aside, I wasn’t such a terrible photographer—she told me about Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, who has spent the last few years painting a gorgeous series called Gymnasium. Nkosi, who was born in New York, moved to Zimbabwe when she was 8, and then later to Johannesburg just as apartheid was ending. (Her South African father had been in exile up until that point.)

I’m admittedly a Philistine who doesn’t know much about visual art, but when Doyle pulled up some of the online images of Nkosi’s work on her phone, I was immediately struck by the color and composition of the paintings: The pastels; the clean lines of the gymnastics setting. I saw quotidian scenes from gym life, such girls dragging mats across the floor. This is the kind of thing that you see every day in a gymnastics facility, but it is rarely highlighted in works about the sport. For example: Mundt’s series focused on the spectacular aspects of gymnastics by recreating on canvas the frame-by-frame skill breakdowns that the New York Times published during the 2016 Olympics. Mundt’s paintings featured recognizable gymnasts like Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, and Simone Biles doing the difficult, complex acrobatic skills that the sport is known for.

And one of other notable features of Nkosi’s gymnastics series is the fact that everyone on the canvas—from gymnast to judge to spectator—is Black. 

Shortly after I returned home from Los Angeles, I reached out to Nkosi and asked if I could speak with her for the newsletter and she graciously agreed. We spoke for about an hour, but I was then forced to set the interview aside because I had gotten busy at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020 and didn’t have time to transcribe our conversation. (Also, I’m a world-class procrastinator when it comes to transcribing.)

And then in February, an editor at Victory Journal, a print journal that covers sports and culture, asked me if I wanted to do Q&A with Nkosi for their summer issue. Of course, I immediately said yes. This meant I got to talk to Nkosi again (yay!) for the journal, but it also meant that I had to set aside this newsletter until my Q&A was published. Due to COVID-19, it wasn’t published in the summer as had been the original plan; the publication was delayed until right before the holidays when a massive, gorgeous print journal arrived in my mailbox. (Well, technically not inside my mailbox because it was far too large to fit inside it.)

And in January, the digital version of my Q&A with Nkosi went up on Victory Journal’s site. You can read it here, but I can’t stress enough how stunning the print issue is and how much better it is for appreciating Nkosi’s work.

Anyway, I think that was more backstory than any of you wanted so let’s get to the meat of the thing, my conversation with Nkosi. As usual, the following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity and for not making me sound stupid; Nkosi, of course, comes across as absolutely brilliant.

Dvora Meyers: What got you interested in painting gymnastics as a subject for your work?

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi: I started painting architecture. That's what I was really interested in as a painter. I mean, I'm a painter, but I'm working in a few different mediums. But in painting, I was really just interested in architecture and geometry and lines; my aesthetic was all very linear.

I started painting portraits out of the blue. I hadn't really ever painted portraits...And then at some point, I [think] it was around 2012, I started looking at imagery of sports...I think it was some desire to mix these two interests, in line and then in figuration. I started looking at people playing water polo and basketball and fencing and then also gymnasts...There was this really beautiful formal meeting of the two things, of line and the figure.

[Nkosi speaking about the setting of the gymnasium itself.]

Quite literally [there’s] a line that's on the floor and in the arena and these figures doing these beautiful, very lyrical moves. 

I just started painting these Black gymnasts. And it was part of what I was doing in portraiture, which was painting Black people into art history, like in current contemporary art history.

It was just about seeing yourself in your art and in the world. I have a background in martial arts, and I have a real interest in movement. That's a personal interest. I've never really done gymnastics. I didn't have a background in it.

DM: I want to go back to the idea of lines. If you've watched gymnastics, which of course you have, they [the commentators] use language of the lines and angles. They will talk about the body lines and how she [the gymnast] has these beautiful lines, and then extrapolate from that that she's so artistic. In this way, the language of artistry becomes this coded language for body type. And also, a coded language for race, as in the racist comments that Italians made about Simone in 2013. [You can read the backstory here.] Can you talk a little bit about this idea of lines in architecture, in the space, but also with bodies and the shapes they make?

[Ed. note: Nia Dennis, the UCLA gymnast whose floor routine went viral last week, spoke about the issue with lines and how many Black gymnasts aren’t thought of as having nice lines.She said, “I got told my lines weren’t pretty.”]

TNN: Where I sort of have taken the discussion about the body is I've gone into the history of the sport...thinking about what the expression of the body meant in different eras and in different places. And I've been sort of specifically interested in the introduction of this sport into an African context.

And I'm currently learning about Niels Bukh, the Danish forefather of the sport. 

[Ed. note: Until I spoke with Nkosi, I had never heard of this guy, I’m ashamed to admit, despite his huge influence on the sport I’ve spent a decade covering. He was a Nazi sympathizer and a white supremacist.]

I keep coming back to this word, the ubermensch, that the Germans came up with. The body being this symbol of beauty and strength, and a gymnast's body being a symbol of beauty and strength and cleanliness...Niels Bukh going on his world tour in the 30s and he came to South Africa and basically told what would become the apartheid government, he told the whites in power that they should be careful of letting their physical strength dwindle, because these natives will take over [because] they're stronger than you. He was basically touting gymnastics as this way for whites to maintain dominance.

Anyway, I've been just interested in this idea of discipline around the body and the ideas of what is beautiful and what is not, and very strict ideas around beauty and how Black bodies do or don't fit into that. And different kinds of Black bodies do or don't fit into that ideal within the sport. That's been talked about a lot, the sort of language that is used for Black bodies versus white bodies. I think it's all over sports. My interest in the body and of the form as it relates to the body and ideology as it relates to the body. 

The newest set of paintings have been inspired by the body sort of failing or flailing or tumbling, falling in the spaces. Those lines and those shapes have been really beautiful to me because when you're executing a move, there's a rigidity and there are angles, and they're much more strict and straight. In the falling, there are these beautiful, really lyrical, really sort of undulating forms that come out, and that's what I've been working with lately. 

It's a gymnast who's fallen.. she's kind of like half punching the ground and half stopping her fall.

So that's been what I'm playing with now, the breaking of the lines and the perfection, and the vulnerability that that portrays.

This whole thing is striving for perfection and so for me, I'm curious about these moments of imperfection. They're taught to recover really quickly, as quickly as you can, and to move past it. I've sort of paused in the moment of that literal pause... Let's just stay in that moment of failure because there's beauty in that moment for me.

I looked up gymnastics fails or falls.

DM: Last year there was a hashtag that started with a gymnast from Italy posting her fail video and everyone started adding theirs. 

Maybe they don't appreciate the beauty the way that you are appreciating the falls, but there's probably some sort of pressure release of like, the worst thing that I'm afraid of happening is a fall and it's not that big a deal. Or, ‘Oh, look, this is funny,’ and then laughing at the things you're afraid of. That's armchair psychology. I'm just speculating. 

I recently went to the Whitney Biennial and saw Jeannette Mundt’s series of gymnastics paintings. 

TNN: I became aware of it right after I finished painting and I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ 

DM: There's a real contrast between yours and hers. First of all, hers are of famous identifiable gymnasts. And also hers portray skills and acrobatics, and yours do not appear to be focused on acrobatic movements. What made you choose to present it that way, as opposed to focusing on the flips, which is what a lot of people jump to when they think about gymnastics? 

TNN: I was thinking about all these other things that the sport evokes for me. I was thinking about the idea of labor. I wanted these in-between moments of women or girls really, young women pulling the mats around and working towards something and I wanted the moment between the move...and the moment of anticipation when there's no gymnast in sight and you are waiting for them to enter the frame

There's a couple of things going on there. One is that I started thinking about the sport as a metaphor for my experience in the art world. So there's something about performing your identity and the labor behind the work.

What else is there if we look beyond the moment of glory?

I guess that's what a lot of my work is about. It's not about the thing that everybody talks about; it's about the things that make up the thing...I want to understand the component parts of what I'm looking at so that, for me, was sort of breaking down the sport a little bit. I'm watching it, not for the particular very difficult move. I'm watching it for all these other moments of tenderness or of failure or in between a move or of being watched or witnessed...I've sort of turned the judges into witnesses, and they're kind of ancient witnesses; I've been thinking about them as ancestors, who were watching this live performance and who are there, maybe for support, maybe judgment, or whatever happens in witnessing. They're this force.

DM: As someone who did gymnastics, I really liked the image of the two girls dragging mats because it is such a big part of your day to day, moving mats from one event to another...I think people who've been in gymnastics, who've gone to the gym, will recognize that.

Speaking of things that happen in practice, when you were at the gym, did you see the girls using the lines on the floor mat to practice their beam skills?

TNN: The lines in a gymnasium are just fascinating to see, the contrast of all the different levels of geometry going on. The architecture is so complex. I really love the, I don't know what they're called, but the wires that keep things in place. There's so much to visually and physically navigate. I was really just sort of struck by that.

[Ed. note: Nkosi is referring to the steel cables that are used to secure the uneven bars and high bar to the ground.]

You notice this person actually working along this line [on the floor] and this makes sense to them in a different way than it would've to me.

In my work, I tried to tear things down as much as possible. So there's a loss of identity to a degree. And in terms of the architecture of spaces, I really try to tell you about a space with the least amount of information possible. And so what has happened with these paintings is that there's this play between what the figure does…[and] how the architecture becomes architecture when the body activates it. So just like in life, you don't really know what something is for and then the body will come along and navigate it and work with it. And then you're like, ‘Okay, I understand this.’ With the paintings, the architecture is so pared down, and it doesn't become architecture until there's a figure in the space.

The last part of the conversation got me thinking about the balance beam. Let's say you have someone who's never heard of gymnastics and you put them in a room with a balance beam. How do they know what to do with it? Are they supposed to walk under it? Are they supposed to hang from it? It's hard for me to imagine not knowing what to do with a balance beam. It feels like I’ve always known what a balance beam is for but that’s because I had seen it “activated” as Nkosi put it by others before I ever found myself in the same room as one. 

When I was a kid, every straight line I encountered became a balance beam. When I used to walk home on Saturdays with my mom from synagogue, I would jump on every set of bricks and do leaps and choreography. I “activated” those bricks in a way that I've activated other lines, such as the lines on the kitchen floor linoleum or the armrest of the couch. For several years, every straight line I encountered became a balance beam. 

In our exchange from late 2019, we mostly spoke about Nkosi’s series Gymnasium, but she has another series of paintings that has a connection to gymnastics. In Heroes, Nkosi painted Black people into art history—her own relatives, famous political figures like Betty Shabbaz, cultural icons like Jimi Hendrix, and, for a few of the portraits, she painted Black gymnasts such as Betty Okino and Luci Collins.  

Here is her portrait based on Okino, who competed at the 1991 world championships and helped the U.S. win the team silver and won an individual silver on the bars and a bronze on the beam. Okino was also a member of the bronze medal winning 1992 Olympic team.

In the Victory Journal piece, I asked Nkosi about the parallels between hers and Okino’s life:

VJ: Your family background made me think about Betty Okino [member of the bronze-medal winning 1992 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team] whose family fled from Uganda to the U.S. where she eventually started training with the Karolyis. There’s a story about how Bela and Martha would critique routines to each other in Romanian and the corrections would appear despite the fact that they hadn’t said anything to their English-speaking gymnasts. It turns out Betty, whose mother is Romanian, was translating for her teammates. Betty was living between all these worlds and performing all of these acts of translation. Have you felt that way in terms of your experience, moving between worlds?

TNN: They [the Karolyis] would never have assumed that she, even though they knew her and the background, would understand them because they saw her as so other, which was a similar experience for me in that my mother is Greek and I have family in Greece but they still they won’t assume that I can understand [Greek]. Even now in South Africa, depending on where I am, I’m not exactly seen as Black...whereas in the United States my experience of being Black was more cut and dry because of the one-drop rule. When you asked me about translation and identifying with Betty Okino’s experience like, yes, and the ways in which I identify with that experience depend greatly on where I am and where we are in time.

Image credits: Courtesy of Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi