AFRICAN AMERICAN ATHLETES have been competing in the Olympics for more than a century—earning gold medals, breaking records, and making political statements. Who can forget U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith (gold) and John Carlos (bronze) bowing their heads and raising their fists at the 200 meter medal ceremony at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics in an effort to draw attention to racial inequality in America?
For decades, athletes and artists competed in the Olympics. Medals were awarded in five creative categories including painting and architecture from 1912 to 1948. Artists still figure prominently in the international athletic competition. Every four years, artists are enlisted to design official Olympic posters to commemorate the games. Over the years, prominent African American artists including Romare Bearden, Jacob Lawrence, Ernie Barnes, and Martin Puryear have participated.
The graphic approach of Bearden’s poster for the 1976 Olympics in Montreal references Greek architecture—a nod to the historic origin of the games—and includes the overarching message of the international gathering: “The Olympics: where Men & Women of all Nations engage in Peaceful Competition.”
Puryear and Barnes made posters for 1984 games in Los Angeles. Barnes was commissioned to produce a special series, the four images capture gymnastics, sprinting, high jumping, and boxing. “Since ancient days sports has been an inspiration for artists,” Barnes told People magazine. “Sports mirrors life perfectly. You get knocked down, you have to come back—harder.”
“Since ancient days sports has been an inspiration for artists. Sports mirrors life perfectly. You get knocked down, you have to come back—harder.” — Ernie Barnes, People Magazine (1984)
British artists Anthea Hamilton and Chris Ofili created posters for the London Olympics in 2012. Ofili won the Turner Prize in 1998. This year, Hamilton was shortlisted for the annual prize presented to a UK artist under the age of 50. For the poster, she portrayed elegantly poised legs in a pool, seemingly referencing synchronized swimming, a women-only event.
Lawrence, Puryear, and Ofili each focused on Olympic runners, perhaps in tribute to the longstanding excellence black athletes have demonstrated in track and field. John Baxter Taylor Jr. was the first African American athlete to win a gold medal. Taylor was a member of the 1908 men’s medley relay team at the London Olympics. Through the decades, many distinguished black track and field athletes have followed in his footsteps.
At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, they continue to excel. Usain Bolt, the Jamaican sprinter, retained his title as the fastest man alive. Bolt earned gold in the 100 meters. (A feat he also accomplished at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.) Runners Wayde van Niekerk (South Africa), Jemima Sumgong (Kenya), David Rudisha (Kenya), Shaunae Miller (Bahamas), each won gold in their respective events. U.S. Olympian Jeff Henderson won the gold medal in men’s long jump.
ANTHEA HAMILTON, “Divers,” 2011 (color screenprint). | via Counter Editions
BEYOND TRACK AND FIELD, Africa American athletes are earning medals in a wide variety of events. Fencer Daryl Homer was awarded the silver medal in men’s sabre fencing, becoming the first American (and first black) to win the event in 112 years. African American women, in particular, are breaking new ground in Rio. Michelle Carter won the gold medal in women’s shotput, the first-ever for a U.S. woman in the event. Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first U.S. Olympian to wear a hijab during competition and earned a bronze medal as a member of the women’s sabre team. The first and only black athlete on the U.S. women’s water polo team, goalie Ashleigh Johnson continues to pursue gold after the team beat Brazil, landing them in the semifinals.
And then there are the Simones. U.S. swimmer Simone Manuel won a gold medal in the women’s 100-meter freestyle. Manuel is the first African American woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming. She tied for the top spot and along with the co-winner set an Olympic record in the race. Expected to win five gold medals, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles has achieved three golds so far, on the vault and in the individual and team all-around events. She faltered on the balance beam earning a bronze and competes in women’s floor exercise later today. Biles is a three-time world champion and since medaling in Rio, she is the most decorated gymnast in American history.
Gymnast Simone Biles is a three-time world champion and since medaling in Rio, she is the most decorated gymnast in American history.
AFRICAN AMERICAN ARTISTS have paid tribute to the Olympics outside of the poster program. For example, Faith Ringgold captured Olympic history with a public artwork installed in the 125th Street subway in 1996, the year of the Atlanta Olympics. “Flying Home: Harlem Heroes and Heroines,” a mosaic mural on the 2/3 line in Harlem features Jesse Owens, among other African American legends. Owens, a track and field champion, won four gold medals in the 1936 Munich Olympics.
Jean-Michel Basquiat was inspired by the Olympics, too. He collaborated with Andy Warhol on a 1984 “Olympics” painting that sold at Phillips London, a month before the Olympics got underway in 2012. The auction price, about $8.7 million, was twice the estimate.
After the 1984 games in Los Angeles, Basquiat collaborated with Warhol on another canvas titled “Olympic Rings.” Produced in 1985, the painting is abstract, playful, dark and humorous. The work was on view during the 2012 Olympics in London at Gagosian Gallery.
Warhol fashioned his rendition of the Olympic rings on the canvas and then Basquiat took a turn. According to the gallery, “Basquiat responded to the abstract, stylized logos with his oppositional graffiti style. Between clusters of Warhol’s Olympic rings, he imposed a bold, dark, mask-like head, like a medallion in a link chain, undoubtedly an allusion to African-American star athletes of past Olympic Games, such as Jesse Owens, Carl Lewis, Tommie Smith, and John Carlos.” CT
Co-authored with Harry Henderson, Romare Bearden’s “A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present” provides a comprehensive overview of black American art through the 20th century. “Chris Ofili: Night and Day” features full-color images of works from throughout Ofili’s career, along with scholarly writing. Fellow artists Glenn Ligon and Lynette Yiadom-Boakye are among the authors. The catalog “Martin Puryear: Multiple Dimensions” was published to coincide with the Puryear exhibition currently on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
JACOB LAWRENCE, “Olympic Games Munich 1972 (Olympische Spiele München 1972),” 1971-72 (color screenprint, poster). | © 2014 The Jacob and Gwendolyn Lawrence Foundation, Seattle / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York via Philadelphia Museum of Art
ROMARE BEARDEN, “Olympics,” 1976 (color screenprint). | via Swann Auction Galleries
CHRIS OFILI, “For the Unknown Runner,” 2011 (lithograph on paper). | © Chris Ofili, courtesy Victoria Miro Gallery, London via Tate Museum