the language of uniform

14 June 2020

In renaissance painting, the use of hand gesture is effectively a hidden message. One of the great things about visual arts is its ability to say something and not say it at the same time.  

I started looking at football as a metaphor about 20 years ago. This evolved, as thinking does, but started as an idea about substituting historical figures for sporting ones, in the uniform of their sport. There’s a much longer story to tell here about who is ‘allowed’ (or encouraged, if you like) to participate in sport and who is ‘allowed’ to participate in thinking and learning. It’s worth reading Akala on this for a more comprehensive take. But for me it was always the symbolism of sport rather than the actuality of it that held my interest.

The popularity of sport and how it attracts and inspires devotion – particularly football (of all codes) – has parallels with other kinds of popular movements. People seem to seek out kinship in people who agree with them and/or follow the same team/live in the same area. ‘One-eyed’ is a term often used, indicating a lack of critical thinking. This weekend in London has been a horrifying reminder of this kind of tribalism among people who identify as football fans.

In the early 2000s I started painting a series based on Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. There was something about the popular mass movement,  the number of bodies involved, in the idea of the many not the few, that connected with the idea of a team and its followers. A movement of people wanting the same thing, working together to achieve its ends. My figures were/are defined by their absence of ego. They’re getting on and doing a job – not motivated by personal gain or giving themselves a platform. 

Movements need leadership groups of some kind or other. I don’t know if a completely flat structure has ever worked. At the very least there needs to be some kind of system in place for agreeing on focus and actions.

Last weekend, during the wave of Black Lives Matters protests, the gathering in Central London on Saturday felt different to anything I had ever been to before. The usual suspects were absent. It was led by young people, young black people in the majority. Walking from my home to Westminster, I saw an almost continuous trail of people walking in the same direction. It felt like people walking towards the football stadium, eager for the game. On the march from Westminster via Victoria to the US Embassy south of the river, families waved and cheered from their windows with home made signs. People stuck in their cars, unable to move due to throngs of people, beeped horns in support. This felt like the celebration of a victory, with fans waving flags and cheering on their team. It’s a daft analogy really. There is too much at stake and too much work to be done. But the point is, this feels like a mass movement with young people of colour engaged, participating and leading. And we need more of that.

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