I love little moments of artistic serendipity. I come across them often and they are the fuel behind this site. Today, while looking at the work of photographer James Van Der Zee, I came across this picture:
It immediately reminded me of a painting by Derek Fordjour that I fell in love with a few months ago.
The Van Der Zee photo, circa 1925, was of The New York Renaissance, the first all black and black-owned professional Basketball team founded by Robert “Bob” Douglas in 1923. The team was named after the Renaissance Casino ballroom/casino in Harlem where they played weekly games. “The Rens” were also the first black basketball team to tour the U.S. to play against white teams. With a record of success throughout the 20’s and 30’s, The Rens recorded their first win against the original world champion Celtics in 1925 and during their tenure they won over 2,500 games.
I love both of these works of art. When I first saw the Derek Fordjour show at Papillion Art in February, I was immediately drawn to it. The sheer size of Formation (60 x 40) pulls you into its 3D cubed pattern on the bottom half of the painting. At the time I assumed the subjects were soccer players and I couldn’t figure out why three of them were concealed behind a curtain. Were they on display? The expressions on the players faces are ambiguous; are they simply numbers on a jersey, here for our entertainment, as the discarded numbers on the 3D floor suggest?
The Rens played basketball for black and white audiences, and in Harlem the games were often the precursor to an evening of dancing and partying in the ballrooms. The jovial environment in Harlem was rarely found during the team’s road travel. Jim Crow laws forced the players to play under uncomfortable conditions in hostile environments. Hotel rooms were impossible to come by, and race riots erupted during at least 5 of their games. The hostility also extended to the governing body of basketball. The American Basketball League refused to accept the Rens into the league in 1925. In a surprising form of solidarity, the original Celtics refused the join the league as well and as a result the Celtics and the Rens enjoyed a friendly rivalry that strengthened both teams. As the son of one of the original members of the Celtics recalls:
“I was raised hearing that the Celtics were the greatest team of all time,” said Richard Lapchick. “My dad’s friends would say that and all our neighbors would say that. But he would correct them and say, ‘The Rens were every bit as good as we were in the beginning and were better than us in the end.'”
I think it’s important to view Van Der Zee and Fordjour’s works in tandem. Through photography, Van Der Zee captured the history and stories of a time nearly forgotten. Derek Fordjour’s work draws from sports, board games and circus/carnival motifs to explore ideas of vulnerability. Perhaps that is why Fordjour chose to obscure three members of the team in his painting. The Rens are one of the greatest Basketball teams in history, yet their story is barely recognized in the athletic canon. If these stories aren’t shared or given new life, the curtain slowly closes on their legacy.
I went back through my posts on when I first wrote about Van Der Zee-February 4, 2016. I saw Fordjour’s Formation at Papillion on February 6th. At the time I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was so drawn to the painting. It is perfectly clear to me now.