Es­maa Mo­hamoud con­fronts in­jus­tice— and her crit­ics.


Artist Es­maa Mo­hamoud won’t bow down to crit­i­cism

It’s not of­ten that an artist’s creative hero be­comes a peer. In Es­maa Mo­hamoud’s case, it was a dream within reach. Af­ter idol­iz­ing and even meet­ing fem­i­nist mul­ti­me­dia artist Suzy Lake in Lon­don, On­tario, Mo­hamoud would find her­self rub­bing shoulders with her years later at the Royal On­tario Mu­seum’s launch of “Here We Are Here: Black Cana­dian Con­tem­po­rary Art”, where the young artist’s work was fea­tured. Mak­ing the reac­quain­tance of an (iconic) artist she looks up to—this time as a pa­tron of her work—is just a sin­gle frag­ment of Mo­hamoud’s im­pres­sive rise as one of Canada’s most vi­sion­ary artists.

In ad­di­tion to show­ing at the ROM this past Jan­u­ary, the 25-year-old artist has also ex­hib­ited her art at the Art Gallery of On­tario, as well as in Mi­ami and Los An­ge­les. Known for her large-scale in­stal­la­tions, of­ten mul­ti­me­dia in­volv­ing in­dus­trial ma­te­ri­als, Mo­hamoud asks dif­fi­cult ques­tions through her work. “When I cre­ate an ex­hibit,” says Mo­hamoud, “I am com­mu­ni­cat­ing through ob­jects—how they can change in dif­fer­ent spa­ces.” Wear­ing a grey sweat­shirt and blue nail pol­ish, Mo­hamoud ges­tures at the blank walls in­side Geor­gia Scher­man Projects. The Toronto gallery rep­re­sents the Cana­dian artist, and is plan­ning a show ded­i­cated to her work which will open next spring.

In One of the Boys— ar­guably Mo­hamoud’s most rec­og­niz­able work to date—she col­lab­o­rated with fel­low artist Qen­drim Hoti to fash­ion two ball gowns us­ing Vince Carter Rap­tors jer­seys. Her work at the ROM, en­ti­tled Un­ti­tled (No Fields), re­sponded to the Amer­i­can foot­ball play­ers who kneeled dur­ing the national an­them to protest racial in­jus­tice. At the open­ing, a model wear­ing African wax-print foot­ball pads and heavy chains took a knee.

But to say Mo­hamoud’s work con­sis­tently de­con­structs ath­leti­cism would be in­cor­rect. Sev­eral pre­vi­ous pieces have made no men­tion of sports, but her fo­cus on black bodies and racial prej­u­dices is un­wa­ver­ing. In one of her most overtly po­lit­i­cal in­stal­la­tions, 2016’s 99 Prob­lems (By De­fault), black sheets of pa­per ap­pear blank, but up close re­veal the names of 99 un­armed black men killed in the United States by po­lice of­fi­cers.

Mo­hamoud grew up in Lon­don, On­tario as one of five kids. “Lon­don peo­ple were afraid of black­ness,” she says. She spoke Ara­bic at home, and iden­ti­fies as Afro-Arab. Like many chil­dren of im­mi­grants, she felt pres­sure to suc­ceed in a con­ven­tional ca­reer, and promised her par­ents she would at­tend law school. She lied. Mo­hamoud grad­u­ated in 2016 with her Mas­ter’s from OCAD Univer­sity. “I wanted to be a lawyer for my par­ents,” she says, “but I wanted to be an artist more.”

Her rapid suc­cess hasn’t come with­out its pit­falls. One morn­ing in July 2017, she awoke to find around 400 death threats in her Twit­ter feed. A pic­ture of One of the Boys had in­fu­ri­ated peo­ple. They ac­cused her of slan­der­ing the sports hero Vince Carter, and turn­ing peo­ple gay. “Black mas­culin­ity is fas­ci­nat­ing to me,” says Mo­hamoud. “It’s both frag­ile and so strong.” It was ironic be­cause dis­com­fort sur­round­ing gen­der flu­id­ity and black mas­culin­ity was one of the rea­sons she had made the piece. “I was so scared [of mak­ing the piece],” says Mo­hamoud. “I grew up with black guys, I knew the re­ac­tion I was go­ing to get.”

Af­ter tak­ing a brief break from Twit­ter, Mo­hamoud re­turned and re­sponded to each threat­en­ing tweet with a link to her In­sta­gram ac­count. Part of her post read: “I hope you take the time to re­flect upon your own views and progress towards a healthy un­der­stand­ing of dif­fer­ence and equal­ity. And if you don’t and you’re still mad, all I have to say is: stay mad, baby.”

Left: One of the Boys (red), 2018 inkjet print. Cour­tesy of Geor­gia Scher­man Projects and ltd los an­ge­les; Un­ti­tled (No Fields), 2018 inkjet print. Cour­tesy of Geor­gia Scher­man Projects and ltd los an­ge­les.

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