You may have already encountered Lakwena Maciver’s “Afrofuturistic portals to utopia” across sites in London, Paris, Munich, Los Angeles, Miami, and many more locations. Her electrifying artworks often appear in the form of murals occupying public spaces – vibrating with colour and delivering unifying messages of hope and optimism amid bold, dynamic designs. Over recent years, her large-scale commissions and installations have emboldened locations such as the Tate, Somerset House, Southbank Centre, Covent Garden, and The Bowery in New York with her distinct, vibrant visions of “redemption, decolonisation, and paradise”.
Her latest series, Jump Portraits (currently on display at Vigo Gallery) sees the London-based artist turn her focus to basketball and the exalted heroes of the basketball court. In a series of abstracted portraits that appear almost like modern-day alter pieces, Maciver canonises the iconic players whose “beauty and magic” feel almost transcendental.
“I like the notion of the basketball court as a platform or a stage where the players become almost like superheroes… The heights that they soar to… it’s like they are flying, somehow able to rise above the limitations of this world,” she explains in a statement from the gallery. “This is especially poignant for me given that basketball is indisputably dominated by African Americans, and their style of play has shaped the game.”
Maciver, whose father is Ugandan and who spent the formative years of her childhood in East Africa, became fascinated by the politicisation of the game. “The ‘slam-dunk’ for instance, one of basketball’s great crowd-pleasers, could be seen as a physical manifestation of Black power. So much so that it was banned in 1967 for ten years, coincidentally after a year of Lew Alcindor’s domination of the game,” she explains. “I see these paintings as an opportunity to celebrate Black power, joy, and self-expression.”
Take a look through the gallery above to see some of the artworks from the Jump Paintings series. Below, we talk to Lakwena Maciver about glimpsing glory on the basketball court, the contentious history of the slam-dunk, and the recurring motifs that appear in her work like potent hieroglyphs.
Please could you begin by talking us through Jump Paintings and how the idea for this series evolved?
Lakwena Maciver: It’s a story that actually starts a few years ago in 2017 when I was invited to paint a juvenile detention centre in Arkansas by curator Charlotte Dutoit. A couple of years later we were in lockdown, and Black Lives Matter had gained lots of momentum, and I came across a film that had gone viral of Senator Flowers of Arkansas talking in court about ‘stand your ground’ laws, and wanting more time to discuss the issue. She was very passionate and kind of went off on one. I was really moved and inspired by this, and it resonated partly because of the relationship I now had with Arkansas.
Anyway, then a couple of months later I was invited to make artworks for two basketball courts in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and Senator Flowers came to mind. So I named the artworks I’ll Bring You Flowers, in her honour and, in a way, to pay my respects to the African-American community in Arkansas. So this got me thinking about basketball… its place in culture, but also, as with a lot of my work, the potential for it to be used to say something deeper about life.
What’s your affinity with basketball and what do you think we can learn from the history and culture of the sport?
Lakwena Maciver: I have a good friend, Sammy Gunnell, who is a basketball archivist and curator. All along this journey, he’s been someone with who I’ve had conversations and exchanges with to understand more about basketball.
What strikes me about it is the fact that the game resonates with so many people internationally. Michael Jordan is probably one of the most famous people in the world. There’s this mix of sporting excellence, athleticism, but also incredible beauty in how the players play. And I think that’s what attracts people to it. You can’t ignore the dominance of Black people in the game, and how they have shaped the whole culture surrounding it. Basketball wouldn’t have this beauty and magic to it if it weren’t for these players.
I’m not sure what we can learn from that, but I know it’s incredible and it’s something that I want to just dwell on and celebrate, especially in the context of so much negativity about Black men in particular in culture. So that’s a big part of what these paintings are partly about for me.
Please could elaborate on what you have described as basketball’s ‘link between heaven and earth and ourselves as individuals in relation to a higher power’?
Lakwena Maciver: The way the players play… the heights that they soar to. There’s something that feels almost supernatural about that. A lot of my work is about a longing for heaven, so I’m interested in using basketball as a way to speak about that. I think that’s partly why the game resonates with people the way that it does – it touches something in them that also aspires to something beyond the here and now. You get a tiny glimpse of glory when you watch these players. And that’s what I’m interested in.
“You can’t ignore the dominance of Black people in the game, and how they have shaped the whole culture surrounding it. Basketball wouldn’t have this beauty and magic to it if it weren’t for these players” – Lakwena Maciver
I never knew the slam-dunk was ever banned! Please could tell us more about its history and significance and why it’s such a meaningful, loaded move on the basketball court?
Lakwena Maciver: It’s an amazing move. And it’s now basically synonymous with basketball isn’t it? Well, there was a player called Lew Alcindor who was completely dominating the game, and this was I think majorly because of his skill in dunking. Following this season, the slam dunk was banned and this lasted ten years until 1976. It’s widely speculated that this was to stop him from continuing to dominate the game. At the time, many of the people who were dunking were Black players like Lew Alcindor. It’s a familiar theme that a Black person excels and the white power structures suppress that. And this is widely believed to be what happened here. I mean, it’s so political, isn’t it.
Please could you talk us through some of the symbolism and text that appears in this series?
Lakwena Maciver: Hands are a motif that I’m starting to repeat in my work. They sum up so much about connection… help, reaching, touching.
The dove is another one. The dove I’ve used in ‘Larry’ and ‘Magic’ is very close to the dove emoji. I like that that’s now part of our visual language, and a dove is very widely understood to be about freedom, peace, but also about returning.
In terms of the text, I was thinking about words relating to each of the players that also related to wider and deeper themes that I’m interested in.
Could you tell us about the role that scale plays in your work and what so often draws you to larger-sized work?
Lakwena Maciver: I love working on a big scale. I’m interested in speech and the bigger the scale, the more people will see something, and often the more impact it’s able to have. I’m interested in public space, and the monopolisation of it by advertising. Obviously, that’s changing more and more as stuff becomes increasingly digital, but I love the physicality of the real world. Scale is just a way of connecting with people really.
How would you describe the recurring themes in your work? In what ways do you think this series is a continuation of these ideas?
Lakwena Maciver: I’m interested in redemption, decolonisation, and paradise. That’s what these are pointing to – they are a tiny glimpse of that. When I speak about decolonisation being a theme in my work, I mean it very much in relation to colonialism and racism, which is especially resonant in these paintings where part of the intention is to celebrate Black excellence and joy. But I’m also going beyond that. I also mean decolonisation in terms of an absolute freedom of mind, body, soul, and land. That’s what I’m really interested in. Not that I’ve seen it yet, but I’ve glimpsed it.
What would you most like people to take away with them after experiencing your Jump Paintings?
Lakwena Maciver: I guess if they’re able to see them in real life, just to sit with them for a bit. That’s what I like to do. These paintings are very physical, very tactile. To be enjoyed. Probably the most visually rich works that I’ve made so far. But I’m actually trying to point to something that goes beyond the physical. So for people to sit with them and try and look beyond the surface… to see what comes to mind and heart.
Lakwena Maciver’s Jump Paintings is at Vigo Gallery until February 28 2022