Art in Conversation: Drs. Ethan Caldwell, Ruben Campos, and Rod Labrador on 30 Americans


Arminda Gandara, HoMA Public Programs Manager:

Welcome to Art in Conversation, Drs Ethan Caldwell, Ruben Campos, and Rod Labrador are professors of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Professors Caldwell, Campos, and Rod share their perspectives on selected artworks from the exhibition 30 Americans, including The Long Jump by Carl Lewis by Henry Taylor and Basketball and Chain by Hank Willis Thomas, both located in Gallery 27 [Contemporary Gallery].

Ethan Caldwell:

The Long Jump by Carl Lewis by Henry Taylor and then also the Hank Willis Thomas piece, Basketball and Chain, I think that gets us into a good space to force viewers to think about institutions, opportunity – and then “opportunity” especially as it relates to performative politics, performative racism and also respectability. Part of the question I remember we talked about this earlier, what does sports offer Black lives? And more specifically, at what cost? You know, If you’re looking at the Carl Lewis piece, it is an iconic image of Carl Lewis from the Olympics in the 80s, there’s a certain kind of anchor that keeps him grounded to something else that’s also going on that speaks to the Black experience.

When it comes to Carl Lewis, and you look at the background and there’s basically the streets, prisons, a fence and more. How much of that “long jump” is also representing him achieving the so-called myth of the American dream but also at what cost?  And what could potentially come had he not jumped? Or had he not gotten into sports?
Whereas, on the other side, with Basketball and Chain and I know I’m keeping this very general right now, you see these nikes being worn, I think it’s like To Dare Shox from the late 90s, early 2000s, but then you also see a very tight chain link connecting to a basketball and part of that is also representing the heaviness of not only the sport itself or even the ball, but also, what else is riding on every single movement that athlete takes when they’re in sports?

And part of that is also, in my mind, getting to, it opens up the conversation to force us to think, what is happening both on and also off the field? What is happening within the sport and also outside the sport in order to potentially derail these athletes? But also to keep them in this mindset of only sticking to sports versus any kind of politics or of only thinking about their own achievements versus what else is going on in the world to different communities that they’re connected to. And I’ll hold off because I know the others have something to add to it, but I think both of these pieces provide, you know, a glimpse into that contrast but force us to ask those questions.

Rod Labrador:

For me, when I was walking through the 30 Americans exhibit, the Carl Lewis one was the thing that I was immediately kind of drawn to – this was the piece that stood out for me. It was in part because I remember Carl Lewis, I remember his importance particularly in the 1980s in the ‘84 Olympics and the ‘88 Olympics and the kind of popularity and fame that he had and all kinds of things were happening but it was also, if you look at the ‘80s, if you look at Reaganomics, you look at all of these other political and economic factors that are kind of happening at that time, it was, it is an interesting kind of take on race and sports and blackness and masculinity. All of these different things were kind of like the things I was thinking about.

I was also thinking about the ways that if you look at the painting, where, like Ethan mentioned, you have a prison in the background, you have the white picket fence, you have the hopscotch thing, but it also felt like Carl Lewis was jumping at us, and we’re part of the other audience. Was he coming at us, was this about, especially if you’re thinking about this time frame, the 80s, it’s really coming to the fore of the mainstream, coming into our collective imaginations of what we’re supposed to understand for these folks. And was it a conversation about, is sports the viable way to achieve the American dream? To get that white picket fence and the house? And as Ethan was talking about, in terms of what are the costs, it is also a commentary, or could be seen as a commentary on the exploitation of Black bodies when it comes to athletics and the way that athletics is sold as the only way into middle class America or to move up in the world so to speak. So, it’s a physical, it’s a literal and metaphorical jump that Carl Lewis is making.

But for me, there are a whole bunch of things, questions that I was thinking about as I was looking at this. Number one, how do we remember Carl Lewis? How do we remember that kind of time frame? Because if we think about the history of mass incarceration in the United States, this is also when you have that huge uptick in the changes in the laws that are happening in the United States and then you’re seeing two oppositions in terms of, are these the options that are available to young Black men in the United States? And then, how do we see this stuff relating to what’s going on here in Hawai‘i?

One of the things I was thinking is, is this a similar kind of dynamic that we’re seeing with Polynesians and football? Is this a similar kind of dynamic that we see where we are pushing these young men and women into sports and seeing that as their only, or maybe not their only, but as their primary option in terms of achieving some kind of socioeconomic mobility or, as Ethan was talking about, becoming this idea of being a respectable or contributing member of society is through the exploitation of their bodies or using their bodies to achieve some kind of mobility, mobility is what I’m thinking about with the Carl Lewis [piece].

Ruben Campos:

I think it’s also important with that piece, the fact that it’s the Olympics and its this national display of Americanness that throughout the history of the Olympics, there have been so many instances where it is Black athletes that represent the United States to the world and the ways from the ‘68 Olympics with the fist to the Olympics in Germany before World War II in front of Hitler and it’s interesting here with this piece, you have the United States being this kind of gold winning standard of not only athleticism through Black bodies but also the imprisonment and the entrapment and the use of Black bodies.

The fact that you have “GOLD” painted in letters, it is not necessarily, for me, about the actual medal or the actual award, but it is also pointing out the gold standard of what the United States represents and the way that it does that through the Olympics and throughout historical time.

Ethan Caldwell:

Part of what Rod and Ruben are getting to with this national display of Americanness with the use of bodies to become mobile, but it is also the use of bodies by the state, by the government, by private entities and much more importantly that question, who are they property of? Do they actually have a choice with these other factors they are trying to escape?