‘Game Recognize Game’ celebrates sports as a tool for social change

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“To kneel or not to kneel” seems to be the question currently rocking our athletic world, ever since Colin Kaepernick’s bold decision to take a knee during the national anthem in protest against police brutality. But, as history reminds us, he was not the first athlete to use sports as a platform for social change, nor was this the first time that an athlete was reprimanded for publicly challenging social injustice. “Game Recognize Game” the SOMArts Cultural Center’s newest exhibit explores just that: how sports have been and can be more than just a game.

The exhibit’s opening night Thursday featured seven different artists, many with pieces that focus on athletes in history who, just like Kaepernick, used their power and influence to fight injustice. But even beyond the theme of athletes spurring change, many pieces explored the power of the game itself.

One such piece, which almost immediately catches the eye upon entry into the gallery, is Yvan Iturriaga and curator Dania Cabello’s mixed media mural “Nepantla” (a Nahuatl word meaning “in-between-ness”). This enormous mural features a 50-foot wall with a larger-than-life depiction of a godlike Aztec figure shooting a sun-shaped basketball. Quite creatively, the mural also includes a makeshift basketball hoop — made from a milk crate and a piece of plywood — with the words “Free Palestine” painted on the backboard, which a group of young kids and adults was using to play a game of two-on-two.

This rather ingenious piece explores not only the literal and figurative divisiveness of the border walls in places such as Mexico and Palestine but also highlights how sports can be a part of “dismantling and kicking down these harmful divisions,” as the piece’s label explains. The most amazing part about this sort of piece is how one can actually view this proposed dismantling of divisions occurring while the viewers — once strangers and passive observers of the exhibit — play together, become part of the exhibit and help demonstrate the very same uniting force of sports that the piece seeks to convey.

The titular sense of recognition in “Game Recognize Game” becomes especially important — while the context surrounding sports has many times contributed to social movements and even changed the game itself, it is often easier to focus on athletics as a mere entertainment industry that uses the basis of competition to gain viewers and capital. “Game Recognize Game,” though, calls upon us to see what really gives sports their value — that is, how athletes as social figures and sports as a piece of culture can influence the world around us.

In a similar way, “Game Recognize Game” also reminds us of the long history of sports as a form of healing and the preservation of culture, much like dancing or arts in general. In a performance on opening night, Arjuna Sayyed, Miguel-Angel Astudillo, Iturriaga and Cabello’s “The Medicine of Movement” celebrated this history and challenged the erasure of oppressed culture through both dance and sports. Artists and participants alike were invited to showcase their best moves, from juggling a soccer ball to break dancing in the middle of the floor — or even doing both at once.          

This quirky, playful performance reflected the ambience of the entire exhibit: casual, welcoming and all for the fun of it. “Game Recognize Game” was not the kind of highbrow art show that leaves people nodding vaguely at physically and thematically distant pieces, but rather, it embraces a community of sports fans and artists, exhibiting their point of intersection. It speaks to the common person and reminds them not to discount the work of athletes and sports in social progress.

As much as sports can be about competition, sports are also about unity — in a team, in a community. In this way, “Game Recognize Game” provides us with another forum to come together in resistance — one where all you have to do is play.

The “Game Recognize Game” exhibit will be running at the SOMArts Cultural Center until Jan. 10, 2018.

Contact Julia Bertolero at [email protected].