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Michigan State University

MSU Broad merges sports, art, and social justice

On the second floor of the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum, an exhibit has come together aiming to weave three threads essential to the fabric of the country.

“Resistance Training: Art, Sports, and Civil Rights” looks at the connections between artists and athletes, while also highlighting how both have been instrumental in the progress for social justice.

“It is personal in the sense that sports have played a very important role in my own life,” Senior Curator and Director of Curatorial Affairs Steven L. Bridges said.

Bridges also curated of the exhibit.

The inspiration behind “Resistance Training” comes from his own athletic roots and realizing there are many similarities between the world of sports and the world of the arts.

“I grew up playing soccer, certainly baseball, basketball. Those things were always coupled with my love of the arts. They build team-oriented mentalities, the lessons that you learn … that you kind of experience through both of those areas of activity. I think there’s actually a lot of shared value and interest within them,” Bridges said.

Glenn Kaino,
Glenn Kaino, "Salute (Lineage)," 2019.
Wendy White,
Wendy White, "If I Can, You Can," 2016.

New York-based artist Wendy White has three pieces on display in the exhibit.

“I’m not an athlete. I’m not pretending to be one. I go to the gym, that’s it,” she said.

She also echoed the thoughts of Bridges.

“Everything else in our lives is so considered, so set. And in sports, anything can happen, and I love that about it. And it’s the same in art. Like you go to the studio, and you don’t know necessarily what you’re going to make,” White said.

She compared herself to a basketball player practicing shooting a free throw. Shot after shot, perfecting timing and rhythm.

“We repeat these motions the same way as athletes do. So, a tennis stroke, a line on a canvas. And then there’s space of play. There’s like the canvas versus the field, or the pitch,” White said.

White’s work in the exhibit centers on athletes like retired tennis superstars Serena Williams and Billie Jean King, two pioneers of gender equality and social justice.

"Everything else in our lives is so considered, so set. And in sports, anything can happen, and I love that about it. And it’s the same in art."
Wendy White, artist

Another one of her pieces commemorates women’s World Cup soccer champion Brandi Chastain, who famously scored the World Cup-winning penalty shootout goal against China in 1999.

Chastain immediately celebrated by removing her jersey, revealing her sports bra and dropping to her knees while pumping her arms in triumph.

It’s an image that became a powerful, yet controversial, symbol in women’s athletic history.

“It became about the sports bra. It wasn’t even about the moment. Yeah, everyone loved that they won the World Cup. So, I think that we need to play a lot of catch-up with women’s sports and kind of getting that on the books and people knowing the history,” White said.

And history is a hallmark of the exhibition, specifically the tie-in of Michigan State athletics history. That came as a surprise for Bridges when conducting his research.

A photo of the MAC football team in 1915. Gideon Smith is pictured in the back row (third from left) next to head coach John Macklin.

“When I started to dig-in to some of the stories here at MSU, it was like the floodgates just opened,” Bridges said.

Like football player Gideon Smith who was the first Black varsity athlete in any sport at MSU, then known as the Michigan Agricultural College.

“He joined MSU in 1913. Gideon went on to have his own storied coaching career,” Bridges said.

And former MSU coach Duffy Daugherty who was one of the first college football coaches in the 1960s to recruit Black players.

Or Jim Bibbs, the first black head coach at Michigan State while working with the track and field team.

Other pieces in the exhibit highlight how athletes have used their platform to call for social justice.

There’s a metal-plated fist of Black Olympian Tommie Smith who raised that fist during the playing of the national anthem alongside fellow track and field athlete John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to advocate for human rights.

Kota Ezawa,
Kota Ezawa, "National Anthem (San Francisco 49ers)," 2019.

There’s watercolor paintings of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem, a form of protest against racial inequality.

A particularly eye-catching piece is by Young Joon Kwak, a former MSU Artist-in-Residence of Critical Race Studies. Kwak created metal sculptures depicting the Spartan Statue as if it were broken apart.

Kwak’s work reimagines the symbolic meaning of the statue.

“I fragmented it. I brought it down to people’s level. Where they can walk around it and look at it from different angles. And some people aren’t just looking up at it, this giant statue. I brought it down to human scale,” Kwak said.

They used a method called ‘cold-casting’ which involved applying silicone to the actual statue to make a mold.

“It requires people’s imagination to kind of complete the symbol of the Spartan. What does it look like? Project some of themselves into The Spartan. I just want people to see what they want to see,” Kwak said.

Young Joon Kwak,
Young Joon Kwak, "Spartan Skin," 2021.
Young Joon Kwak,
Young Joon Kwak, "Spartan Skin," 2021.
Young Joon Kwak,
Young Joon Kwak, "Spartan Skin," 2021.

Bridges hopes people connect with pieces like Kwak’s and White’s to understand both sports and art in nontraditional ways.

“Trying to create experiences. That’s really what the exhibition is. To allow them to enter into the exhibition, hopefully, gain something from that experience through that process,” Bridges said.

“Resistance Training: Art, Sports, and Civil Rights” runs at the MSU Broad Art Museum through February 18th.

Listen to the full story on WKAR.

By Al Martin, originally published by WKAR.

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