Tim Jonze for The Guardian
For some people, football is a matter of life and death. But for Hank Willis Thomas, much like Bill Shankly, it’s far more important than that. Yes, on an aesthetic level The Beautiful Game, his first solo UK show, is a riot of colour and energy: dazzling patchwork collages of Premier League football tops; totem poles of rugby, football and cricket balls inspired by Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuși; a solitary leg performing a midair bicycle kick that invites you to hear the gasps of a non-existent crowd.
But Thomas is also attempting to start a conversation about what the game represents. Beyond the shock of seeing Liverpool and Manchester United jerseys snuggled up next to each other, cooperating in the same colour scheme, you’re also asked to examine the web of corporate sponsorship logos and expensive players from across the globe, and to question the contradictions that underpin Britain’s national sport. Who is really making the money? How many people’s dreams and labours come to nothing so that a select few can succeed? And why are we so determined to pick sides?
That last question confronts you the moment you descend the stairs into the gallery – and find yourself being greeted by a hand protruding from the wall and pushing a football. This is unmistakably a recreation of Maradona’s infamous Hand of God goal, which helped Argentina knock Englandout of the 1986 World Cup, outraging England fans and leaving a wound that has yet to heal.
“Football is often a proxy for war,” says the 41-year-old artist from New York as he guides me around. “So if you think of the Falklands war” – which took place four years before the Hand of God – “this piece speaks to that colonialism, to how the rules of a game can be changed, and how important it is to win at any cost, even when you’re already the best.
“All of these questions play out on the football field. On one level, sport is about local competition. But it’s also about international competition and corporate competition. There’s a lot of stuff clashing.”
Thomas is also weaving a narrative about art history with his quiltwork football tops, which recreate iconic works: Verve, from Matisse’s jazz series; Stuart Davis’s proto-pop art piece Visa; and the asafo warrior flags created by the Fante people of Ghana. These works, he says, were part of the back-and-forth conversation between European and African art that took place around the first half of the 20th century following colonisation.