While the WSL is now fully professionalised, football shares the art world’s gender pay gap problem: ‘RIFT Tax Refunds reveals that the average annual income of female players is £71,131 – equivalent to just one percent of Cristiano Ronaldo’s £6.19million salary,’ as the Daily Express reported. Indeed, the material differences between the men’s and women’s games are extreme, with the latter’s played on (a you-couldn’t-make-it-up metaphor) artificial turf: this year, for the first time ever, the Women's World Cup will be played on actual grass.
Plinth's online exhibition Keepers was on view from 20 July until 31 August 2023
Women’s football is one of the UK’s fastest-growing sports. In 2012, Team GB beat Brazil in the Olympic final, shifting the landscape of British football – yet at the time, some of the players still had day jobs. Just a decade later, the England women's football team raised the bar again, winning the 2022 Euros competition in front of a record global live viewership of 365 million. Following the Lionesses’ victory, the Women's Super League saw attendance increase by 200%, the women's championship by 85%.
Despite contending with a whole different (injury-worsening) playing field, female footballers are levelling it – though there’s still plenty of ground to cover.
Despite contending with a whole different (injury-worsening) playing field, female footballers are levelling it – though there’s still plenty of ground to cover. As the Women’s World Cup kicks off, and working in the slipstream of female football’s remarkable momentum, Plinth has curated an online exhibition of women artists with fresh visual perspectives on sport. Titled Keepers, a nod to the idea that men tend to gatekeep sport and its associated media, seven artists offer new ways to experience it.
Despite patriarchy’s best efforts to convince you otherwise, women are great at sport, they like it, and they have a great eye for it: 'Wayne Rooney was not a normal footballer shape,' observes the British artist Rose Wylie in an interview for the BBC. Having painted Rooney along with other big names of the men’s game, Wylie told ArtNet, ‘People think I’m crazy about football—I’m not, but they are kind of like gods out there, people know and they recognise them, so it is an entry point into the [art]work for them.’
Indeed, this play with shared iconography runs through Keepers, as in ‘Barbie Foot’ (2009), where Chloé Ruchon’s table football teams are populated by everyone’s favourite doll of the moment. Meanwhile, Winnie Hall skirts around the idea of fallen gods, troubled icons, and how they go on performing like troubling uncles in our shared social arena, as in ‘Paul Gascoigne Posts Topless Selfie on Twitter’ (2023), a portrait of a paradoxically sunburnt yet ashen Gazza with a phallic cigar perched between his lips.
"Artists, like athletes, tend to work long hours, perfecting techniques, at times making extreme personal sacrifices in dedication to their craft – sometimes seeming driven by a higher purpose."
In fact, you only have to look at LJ Rader’s Art But Make It Sports (described by the New York times as 'poetry') to see how naturally the two disciplines go together, how painting a sports star picks up the baton from Renaissance representations of Greek myths. Artists, like athletes, tend to work long hours, perfecting techniques, at times making extreme personal sacrifices in dedication to their craft – sometimes seeming driven by a higher purpose.
You can hear the overlap in the language, too, between golf strokes and brush strokes, fields and fields of vision. As children, we are taught to stay inside the lines of the pitch or page. The action painter Harold Rosenberg referred to the canvas as ‘an arena in which to act’, like a boxing ring (a simile later literalised by Ushio Shinohara). Sculptors massage clay into muscles like the sports therapists who monitor real ones.
Art and sport are two of the oldest, most widely understood languages we have, enabling us to express ourselves emotionally and intellectually across borders. Yet, like so much under patriarchy, sport is all-too-often co-opted by a cruel kind of machismo; declaring sport ‘universal’ without noting its myriad cultural barriers would be to ignore the queer people and women who suffer not only exclusion but violence in its name. The fact that numerous studies have found that, win or lose, domestic violence surges by up to 50% after a football match is touched on in Hira Butt’s ‘Dhee Rani’ series, which reflects on women’s objecthood and the restrictions of marriage.
In Keepers, art and sport have space to play: from Ruchon’s fully functional ‘Barbie Foot’ table, via WooSun Choi’s fluorescent polka-dot tennis balls, to Lauren Rizzo Schaffer’s embroidered trading cards. Selected by Rader as part of the first physical iteration of Art But Make It Sports, Schaffer’s practice sees the artist stitching together the traditionally female art of needlepoint with the majority-male activity of card collecting. While collecting cards has been a hobby since the 19th century, it really picked up speed in the 1980s with Michael Jordan-era basketball. Since then, much like the art market, trading cards have fetched exuberant prices at auction, running on the comparable logic of rarity, desirability and chaotic speculation. With one simple thread, Schaffer unravels histories of gender and trade.
Likewise, fashion designer Tasha Sweeney’s collection ‘Trackies and Trainees’, a blend of sports- and knitwear, joins a conversation much bigger than a new Everton kit. As long as bitter winds have buffeted the freezing stands of British football stadia, there have been hand-knitted ‘granny scarves’: in the early 1900s, when dark hats and overcoats filled the terraces, bright, striped scarves flaunted allegiance to a tribe. Up until the 1960s, when colour photography began to boom and manufacturers cottoned on to a money-maker, the football scarf, synonymous with diehard fandom, was the product of the invisible labour and caring fingers of predominantly working-class mothers and grandmothers. Indeed, from quasi-regal skivvy necklines to old football boots, the collection is a love letter to the Toffees (Sweeney’s home team of Everton). These outfits read like lively collages of vintage sportswear, deadstock fabrics and knitted swatches, as if an attic’s worth of memorabilia had come alive and strolled into our athleisure age.
Correspondingly gilding the lily is Hira Butt's ‘Dhee Rani (Princess Daughter)’ (2018), where a football is bejewelled with carefully selected traditional Pakistani decorations used on bridal dresses. The football, uncomfortably kickable, hints at domestic violence, while the jewels say ‘trophy wife’. Yet, at the same time as meditating on the objectification of women – especially scornful of the matrimonial tradition, that women are ‘given away’ on their wedding days – here Butt reduces the football’s utility, too – in a strange kind of payback – rendering merely a decorative item. Indeed, Butt has said that the sculpture reflects contemporary slavery as a result of cultural transition, exploring her own move from East to West. In fact, since making the series, Butt has since discovered that footballs are mass-produced in her grandmother’s village in Pakistan: satisfyingly – for a work that also references Pakistani garment workers in an age of fast fashion – the sculpture was previously shown in Birmingham’s Selfridges, where it blended in with the commercial items.
Where sport clashes with commerce you might well find Winnie Hall and her wandering Adidas stripes and pop sensibility. Hall was the most recent resident at OOF gallery, where artists are invited to develop a new body of work inspired by the intersection of art and football. Alongside Paul Gascoigne, Hall often returns to the boxer Tyson Fury, undermining macho posturing with her trademark humour. In ‘Life Gets Harder, Trackies Grow Thicker’ (2021), which featured in Bloomberg New Contemporaries in 2022, and ‘We All Lean On Each Other’ (2023), part of Keepers, the tracksuit’s three stripes strobe, producing figures caught in a moment of psychedelic recursion; pop cultural references resound and ripple out to other possible worlds.
Similarly taken with lines is Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, whose ‘Gymnasium’ series began with an interest in the architectural details of stadium interiors: the sharp corners of mats, table edges and clean clusters of equipment are stripped back to pastel-coloured blocks that veer close to geometric abstraction even as they uphold the illusion of space. Inside these minimalist arenas, Nkosi places Black bodies performing various states of composure, competition and repose. Challenging the perception of gymnastics as a predominantly white and Asian sport, her figures are featureless and anonymous such that anyone can project themselves into the canvas, while the soft-hues and minimalist compositions deal sensitively with the artist’s statement that ‘Black excellence can go hand in hand with Black vulnerability and the need for rest. The need to sometimes not succeed – to fail and learn.’
‘Black excellence can go hand in hand with Black vulnerability and the need for rest. The need to sometimes not succeed – to fail and learn.’
As the title of WooSun Choi’s series ‘We're all naked until getting into match’ (2021) suggests, the artist shares Nkosi’s interest in sport’s performativity. Again, bodies not typically associated with elite sport – exuberant rolls of flesh are rendered in equally energetic brushstrokes, like sensuously sunburnt Henry Moores – compete on court and relax on crisp white lines and well-tended grass. Compared to Nkosi, Choi is less concerned with who is inside and who is outside these spaces than exploring notions of the in-between, using her characters as visual representations of different aspects of herself. Born in Seoul, now based in Nottingham, Choi is no stranger to being caught between locales; her practice engages with ‘being a foreigner and being a local as a tool to challenge incomplete identities; scrutinizing the ordinary aspect of daily life and transforming, and transporting it into a new reality.’
Sophie Lourdes Knight likewise dissolves binaries and challenges the hierarchies of value placed upon objects. There is something Lana Del Rey-ish about her juxtapositions, bright white headlights of rally cars and strings of pearls, clashing together signs of the everyday with those of luxury. Nestled between a horse’s ears, ‘The Winner’ (2021) is a close crop on a big red rosette which seems to undermine itself: in its apparent failure to capture the horse in the frame, the painting questions what winning and losing really means, probing less obvious performances in daily life and discovering silliness and pageantry. ‘At Rest’ (2022) also features horses, once again collapsing binaries with a cheeky crop: faced with the horse’s flexed fetlock, an affected gesture of insouciance, the viewer finds herself caught between rest and restlessness. ‘Victory I’ (2018), meanwhile, is a ceramic trophy with a Shrigleyesque naivety; highly covetable and curiously diminutive, the object epitomises Knight’s playful attitudes to success and failure.
Like Knight, Chloe Ruchon undermines hierarchies in her ‘Podihomme’ series. Here, a series of unstable and interdependent podiums require first, second and third places to hold one another up, otherwise collapsing entirely such that all the occupants are on the same level. Where Knight has horses, Ruchon coopts another symbol historically associated with girlishness: Barbie. In ‘Barbie Foot’ (a pun in her native French on ‘le-baby foot’), the beaming dolls form a team, skewered by metal bars. While the bars join the team together, one can’t help but read in their peppy grins a wince of pain.
Just as the huge hype around Greta Gerwig's Barbie has affirmed our readiness for a reimagining of femininity via fantasy, Fay Sanders uses painting as an act of social dreaming. Reimagining the 18th-century leisure painting in vibrant palettes, she blurs the line between work and rest. Through highly stylised waves and droplets of rain, whimsy lures the viewer into a state of relaxation; from here, what alternative worlds and formal possibilities might be conjured? In Sanders’ work, danger is held at bay – shark fins and hungry bears, kept still by goggles and glasses, reminiscent of freeze-frames in old workplace education tapes where everything is a learning exercise and nothing is at stake: now, what could Karen have done differently?
Of course, all the works in Keepers are snapshots that invite us to experience sport in new ways. What’s more, the seven artists, each with her singular approach, use sport as a shared system of references with which to establish and challenge the social order, from success and failure to labour and rest. For sure, Keepers’ strength is in its pluralism, all the more formidable in its multiple channels of attack.
By Sammi Gale.