art: thenjiwe niki nkosi 

words: dvora meyers


What does gymnastics look like without the white gaze? In South African multidisciplinary artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s series Gymnasium, we get a glimpse of that world. Her paintings show a sport populated by Black gymnasts in pastel in brightly colored arenas under the gaze of Black judges and watched by throngs of Black spectators.


For most of its history, gymnastics was thought of as a “white sport,” even as a tool of white supremacy. But it’s hard to view gymnastics as an all-white affair anymore. Simone Biles, a Black woman, already considered by most to be the greatest gymnast of all-time. She’s the face of the sport, excelling in a space that wasn’t created with her in mind.


Born in New York to a Greek American mother and a South African father who was in exile, Nkosi moved with her family, first to Zimbabwe when she was 8 and then to Johannesburg in her teens, just as apartheid was ending. She spent her high school years living in a white suburb and contending with the racism of her peers.


Nkosi’s early work depicted that extant racism by painting buildings in the post-apartheid South Africa—well-known structures, signs of white structural power--that may have received a fresh coat of paint but had, more or less, stayed the same. She’s also done a series of portraits called Heroes, in which she painted the people she wanted to see into history. She painted her own relatives but also legendary figures like Jimi Hendrix and Betty Shabbaz, and included several pioneering Black gymnasts in this series—Betty Okino, James Kanati Allen, and Sid Ogelsby.


Gymnasium marries both interests--the focus on lines and space and inserting Black people in those previously white spaces. The work is as much about the clean lines of the gym--the edges of the floor mat, the boundary lines of the floor exercise--as it is about those that inhabit those spaces. The paintings are light, bright, and welcoming, open to all of the young Black gymnasts that grace Nkosi’s canvasses.


“What appealed to me, both then and now, is the tension between control and expression, and the idea of defying the limitations of what we think the body can or cannot do,” Nkosi continued.


Victory Journal: Can you speak about the development of your work over the years?


Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi: I had this idea about art needing to have this social justice function. Being brought up by activist parents, there was this sense that I was going to pursue the thing that I wanted to pursue, but I needed to make it work for more people than just myself. I was active in social justice projects my whole life to different extents, but I wanted my art to also work in this way and was often frustrated by what I felt like were the limitations of the field.


In the early 2000s. I was painting buildings in Johannesburg, mostly banks and other either government owned institutions or private institutions that were white owned, and not only white owned, but owned by racist organizations. The Afrikaner Broederbond, which was an Afrikaans business organization or brotherhood; they changed names, but not much else had changed about them. I was using architecture as a way of talking about how the structures remain the same, they look the same. And they were preventing us from moving forward. Money hadn’t really changed hands and the land hadn’t been returned to anybody.


VJ: Gymnastics is an aesthetic sport so you think there would be a significant amount of art about it as there is with dance, but there isn’t all that much out there. Ballet had Degas. Why do you think there hasn’t been that much art with gymnastics as its subject?


TNN: When you’re talking about Degas, you’re talking about Romantic]; it’s a completely different era. In the world of contemporary art, I think that artists or at least I was aware of not double portraying the beauty of something. Gymnastics is such a beautiful form. There’s something very easy about just showing people executing moves...It’s almost too easy. I was sort of like, well, what about the everyday? Is there something also remarkable in that?


I went to watch her [South African gymnast Caitlin Rooskrantz] and I couldn’t believe that even in that session with these three top professional gymnasts, like how much they were moving [mats], the labor of it and the teamwork of the practice was really remarkable to me. And the support system; I was quite moved by how much they work together. Because it’s seen as this highly individualized, ritualistic sport. And it’s treated like that by the media. Gymnastics, this is the sport of little girls, and so it’s dismissed on some level as not as serious or worthy of examination.


VJ: When did you first start painting images from gymnastics and what drew you to the sport as a subject for your work?


TNN: 2012. I was still painting architecture and I was also starting to paint some portraits. In looking at architectural form, I made a video about a tennis court, one of my first [examining] the actual lines and geometry in sport. I was looking for those same lines and I came across this image of a gymnast just having completed their routine, arms up and judges sitting around him. I just thought, this is really beautiful, from a high angle perspective. This sort of marries my two interests.


So I made that painting and then I made another painting a couple of years later, but I hadn’t intellectualized what about it was interesting to me yet. Even in the 2014 painting, 90% of the painting is just an empty gym with apparatus, and then in the mirror, you can just see these kids. They were white kids [in the photograph], and I decided to paint them as Black kids. I just painted myself into the painting. I’ve just done without really even thinking about it, just inserting Black figures into what we think of as a largely white space or a white sport with a white history. Except that now, it’s no longer a white sport. It’s impossible to think about it as a white sport anymore.

VJ: What have you learned about the history and origins of gymnastics?


TNN: I found an article about Niels Bukh, this Danish educationalist and founder of modern gymnastics. He came to South Africa in the 30s. And he was like, you whites need to use this particular sport as a means of demonstrating your dominance...your evolutionary superiority in the face of these natives who will crush you if you keep sitting back. It was introduced to South Africa before apartheid as a tool of white supremacy. And [today] the young people who are dominating the sport are young people of color. I became really interested in that transition over time.


VJ: You’ve spoken about the challenges of living in an all-white suburb of Johannesburg. Do you see any parallels in that experience and that of a young Black gymnast training in a mostly white gym?


TNN: I was 13, turning 14 at the time of the first elections when I started practicing martial arts. The whole time that I practiced, up until I left for college, I was the only woman of color in my class. And my brother was one of the few Black men in the class. On a social level in terms of my family, I was immersed in Blackness, but other than that, in my school, in our neighborhood, and in my kung fu school, I was immersed in a really racist whiteness.


VJ: Your family background made me think about Betty Okino [member of the bronze medal winning 1992 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team] whose family fled from Uganda to the U.S. where she eventually started training with the Karolyis. There’s a story about how Bela and Martha would critique routines to each other in Romanian and the corrections would appear despite the fact that they hadn’t said anything to their English-speaking gymnasts. It turns out Betty, whose mother is Romanian, was translating for her teammates. Betty was living between all these worlds and performing all of these acts of translation. Have you felt that way in terms of your experience, moving between worlds?


TNN: They [the Karolyis] would never have assumed that she, even though they knew her and the background, would understand them because they saw her as so other, which was a similar experience for me in that my mother is Greek and I have family in Greece but they still they won’t assume that I can understand [Greek]. Even now in South Africa, depending on where I am, I’m not exactly seen as Black...whereas in the United States my experience of being Black was more cut and dry because of the one-drop rule. When you asked me about translation and identifying with Betty Okino’s experience like, yes, and the ways in which I identify with that experience depend greatly on where I am and where we are in time.



VJ: In several of the paintings, you have judges who are looking directly at the athlete, and in some paintings you just have the judges alone. What about judges and judging interests you?


TNN: They’re taken from images of real gyms and real competitions, mostly videos, but they are translated into this world I’m creating, which is a psychological sort of space. The judges started to become something more than judges. They became witnesses. Then I was thinking, who are these witnesses? Are they friendly witnesses? Are they objective witnesses or are they subjective witnesses? And then I moved on to thinking about them as ancestors.


I was painting my aunts who all died while we were living in exile and my grandmother and these women that I never met. I started to imagine the judges as these people. What does it mean to have your ancestors witness you? Are they approving, are they disapproving?  Are they giving you information, passing on some wisdom to you? Are they supporting you? What do you have to do to please them or to not displease them? Or do you, at some moments, just ignore them and do what you have to do?


VJ: How important is it that all of the judges who are evaluating these Black gymnasts are also Black?


TNN: I go between thinking, is this an ideal world or is this a world that I would just like to see? Maybe it’s a game that I play with myself, like what is a world without any white people? There’s this space that I’m trying to create in my own mind, like what is my Blackness without a white gaze?


VJ: What does it mean for a sport that has been so long associated with whiteness to be dominated by a Black woman?


TNN: I don’t particularly subscribe to the idea that any one group of people is more than any other group. But when you’re made to work, not only twice but like three times or four times or ten times as hard, sometimes extraordinary things emerge. I just feel like she is an incredibly motivating figure—so in touch with her own ability. She makes me think that difficult things are achievable.