Artist and Emily Carr University assistant professor Gina Adams recently spoke to Art & Object magazine about how art can confront issues of erasure and colonialism in popular culture — namely, in the globally popular sport of basketball.
In the article, Gina notes how becoming a basketball player in the NBA has a way of automatically assimilating an individual in the eyes of the public, regardless of their place of origin.
“They are seen as All American,” she says in the article. “This is extremely important [because] though there are many native and mixed Indigenous players, the actual count of Indigeneity …has never been counted by the NCAA or NBA.”
Gina’s own body of work, Honoring Modern Unidentified, takes this concern as its starting point.
The series of ceramic encaustic-coated molds of NBA regulation balls were created immediately following an intense period of research around photographs of unidentified Indigenous people, taken during the years the treaties between the U.S government and Native American tribes were first being drawn up.
Gina, who is of Ojibwa, Lakota, Irish, and Lithuanian ancestry, recognized that many of the photographs were staged — many of the Indigenous figures in the photo were laden with a confusing array of cultural artifacts, including beadwork often drawn from different cultures. Connecting with the Spencer Museum in Lawrence, Kansas, Gina was able to connect some of the beadwork worn by the subjects in the photographs with individual museum pieces.
The symbols and marks on the encaustic basketballs represent her interpretation of the links “between the beadwork in the photographs and the pieces that I was able to hold with a gloved hand in the Spencer Museum's collection,” she writes.
Basketball was also used as a tool of assimilation in residential schools such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, she notes. Exploring this history led Gina to create a series of mixed media works, including Girls' Native American Indian Basketball Team.
The works depict groups of young, anonymous Indigenous women, whose lives outside of their inclusion on a basketball team are lost to history.
“I wanted to honor them and elevate their presence in history,” Gina says of the women in those photos. “I want the viewer to know they existed….”
Works from the Honoring Modern Unidentified are currently showing in the To the Hoop: Basketball and Contemporary Art exhibition at the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. The series will also be part of Gina’s upcoming solo exhibition, Maajiigin wa’aw akiing miinawaa (Begin This World Again), at Accola Griefen Fine Art in New York City.