The work is based on a photograph taken of Anderson and some of his friends playing football in a park. As often happens, on occasion the ball would end up being kicked into the pond, and the present work depicts the players standing on the shore, trying to work out how to extract it. However, as is so often case with Anderson’s work, this image is repurposed and takes on a series of ulterior meanings when transposed into painting. In the artist’s words, “It was odd because it brought up so many other things for me. Like the idea of everyone waiting on the edge of the water. It looked like they were waiting for something, or waiting for something to happen. They also seemed to be going somewhere. Or wanting to be somewhere else… there was the question of space and territory” (Hurvin Anderson cited in: Courtney J Martin, ‘On Painterliness…’, Small Axe Project, November 2009, online). The water figures as a barrier to entry, an obstacle to progress, and the uncertainty of the subjects as to how to proceed serves as a metaphor for the liminal status of Afro-Carribean immigrants to the United Kingdom, where structural inequalities have for years meant that non-white citizens have many more hurdles to clear. As Anderson explained, “it is a political discussion. To get to the place where we played football, we had to cross mainline railway tracks and climb over a fence… for some odd reason it never seemed like I had enough time to cross…[this] brought up ideas associated with crossing the tracks” (Ibid.). This phrase, “to cross the tracks”, which implies a movement from good to bad, rich to poor, one community to another, and the fact that he had to do this in order to reach the field provided for Anderson a powerful crutch to illustrate a pervasive feeling. Just as the literal construction of barriers in the form of window grilles epitomised his feeling of dislocation upon visiting Trinidad in the early 2000s, as he immortalised in the Welcome series, the stranded figures on the shore, looking forlornly at a football floating out of reach, reflect the sense of transgression and opposition that many share following their immigration into a new country.
As a viewer, we are made complicit by this painting in an othering process inherent to any discussion of the status of immigrants in the United Kingdom. This heightened awareness of the roles of viewer and subject mirrors the pioneering works of Anderson’s American contemporary Kerry James Marshall, whose paintings depict real or fictionalised scenes from African American history in an attempt to rewrite a whitewashed history of art. Echoing not only Peter Doig but works by artists such as Paul Gauguin and the American Abstract Expressionists, the present work forces the viewer to confront the role of a dominant white narrative in art criticism and appreciation.
However, the fact that the subjects are turned away from the viewer prevents Ball Watching from becoming confrontational. As Jennifer Higgie noted in her essay for Anderson’s seminal exhibition at Ikon Gallery in 2013, “despite the allusions in the paintings to the complex histories of leisure, politics and control…meaning is open-ended and allusive rather than emphatic” (Exh. Cat, Birmingham, Ikon Gallery, Hurvin Anderson reporting back, p. 11). This is to say that the image’s function is not solely reliant upon its interpretation. In the present work, a daring and superbly executed piece that stands up as a truly remarkable painting as well as a tightly conceived conceptual work, we see the apex of this ambiguity of purpose. As Anderson himself said with regard to this work: “Once you paint an image, it starts to become something else. It seemed to be about these guys who didn’t know how to cross this river, this lake, this pond… I became interested in how these kinds of things play out… Can you push this thing away? Can you make an image that is without any context or non-political… a personal image?” (Hurvin Anderson cited in: Victoria Valentine, ‘Culture Talk: British Painter Hurvin Anderson on Personal and Political Histories’, Culture Type, January 2017, online).
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