THE GREATEST OF ALL TIME. If there was any question Simone Biles is the greatest athlete in the history of gymnastics, she put all doubts to rest over the weekend at the United States Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Mo. The world’s top gymnast pushed new boundaries, delivered ambitious routines, and clenched her sixth women’s title.
Her performance was gripping. On Friday, Biles landed a double-double dismount off the balance beam. Then in the floor exercise she did a triple double, but had to use her hands to steady herself on the landing. She attempted the floor element again and hit it on Sunday, the final day of competition. She ran, soared, executed two flips and three twists, and stuck a solid landing. It was the first time a woman had successfully completed either move in competition.
THENJIWE NIKI NKOSI, “Routine,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 35 7/8 x 39 3/8 x 1 7/8 inches / 91.1 x 100 x 4.8 cm). | © Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Biles called the triple double, “the hardest move in the world,” according to the New York Times. NBC Sports referred to her as “Air Biles” on Twitter. Adding another U.S. women’s gymnastics title to her win column, Biles boasts 20 consecutive all-around titles dating back six years, including at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she won five medals—four gold and one bronze.
Simone Biles called the triple double, “the hardest move in the world.” NBC Sports referred to her as “Air Biles.”
A few weeks before Biles, 22, captivated the world with her latest record-setting achievement, two artists chose elite gymnastics as the subject of paintings presented in New York City.
In early May, American-born, South African artist Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi exhibited a series of paintings with Mariane Ibrahim Gallery at Frieze New York. Made in 2019 the body of work is called Gymnasium. The pastel-colored scenes depict multiple black female gymnasts. One imagines Biles, her peers and those who came before her—Luci Collins Cummings, Dianne Durham, Corrinne Wright, Dominique Dawes, Betty Okino, and Gabby Douglas, among them.
The paintings give no immediate indication of the charged issues Nkosi is raising—challenging narratives in the history of sports dealing specifically with the vulnerability of black bodies in white spaces.
When the Whitney Biennial opened in mid-May, Jeannette Mundt was among more than 70 artists selected to exhibit their work in the highly regarded group show. This year’s edition drew sustained protests and more than six months of public scorn directed at Warren B. Kanders, museum’s vice chairman. His company, Safariland, produces tear-gas canisters and other military and law enforcement supplies. Kanders eventually stepped down last month.
Born in Princeton, Mundt lives and works in Somerset, N.J. At the Whitney Biennial, she is showing studies in motion dedicated to the 2016 gold medal-winning U.S. women’s gymnastics team. Based on photo composites from the New York Times, the paintings feature Biles, Laurie Hernandez, and Aly Raisman.
From NBC’s Today Show, footage of Simone Biles at the 2019 United States Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Mo.
JEANETTE MUNDT, Detail of “Born Athlete American: Simone Biles III,” 2019 (oil and glitter on canvas). | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
Similar to Nkosi, Mundt’s work alludes to the complexities facing the sport of gymnastics. The exhibition label for the ongoing series describes the artist’s visual references and cultural concerns:
…Alluding to Eadweard Muybridge’s nineteenth-century motion studies—which captured simple human and animal movements through series of consecutive photographs—Mundt renders the gymnasts’ routines as a sequence of successive frames condensed into a single composition, fragmenting their bodies as they tumble and flip through the air. By disrupting the regimented temporality of the original photos in this way, she hints at the complex systems—nationalist, sexist, and technocratic—underpinning the Olympics, the sport of gymnastics, and the media covering them.”
THE PAINTINGS ON VIEW at the Whitney museum were made between 2017 and 2019. Shortly after Mundt began working on the series, accusations were made public that Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor, had sexually abused young gymnasts for decades. More than 300 women and girls came forward saying they were victims, including Raisman and Biles. (Last year, Nassar was convicted of multiple sex crimes and sentenced 40 to 175 years in prison.)
In Kansas City on Wednesday, Biles was training at Sprint Center in advance of the championships. The back of the leotard she wore was emblazoned with sequins spelling out “Biles” and outlining the image of a goat, a sly reference to her being the greatest of all time (GOAT) in women’s gymnastics.
Speaking to the press, Biles expressed anger and disappointment that USA Gymnastics was aware of accusations against Nassar for years, but failed to guard young athletes in its charge, including her, from exposure to him. Tearing up, Biles told a group of reporters, “It’s hard coming here for an organization and having had them fail us so many times.”
She continued: “We had one goal [winning Olympic gold]. …And we have done everything that they asked us for—even when we didn’t want to. And they couldn’t do one damn job! You had one job; you literally had one job, and you couldn’t protect us!”
Days later, Biles did everything she was supposed to and more. Setting new benchmarks for athleticism in the gymnastics, she continued to the sport. Earning top scores for the floor exercise, balance beam, and vault, she clenched the championship.
“What a weekend!” Biles said on Instagram, where she posted video clips of her historic performances, signing the bittersweet message XO with a black heart. “Thanks to everyone who continues to support me.”
At Frieze, Nkosi’s Gymnasium paintings were a quiet storm, not unlike Biles. The gallery description said the artist “introduces the gymnastics arena as a new space to explore existing narratives. One of the most personally affecting narratives in the history of the sport has been that of the precarious position of the Black body in traditionally white spaces. Elite gymnastics occupies a powerful symbolic position in the public imagination—the human body performing at, and sometimes seemingly beyond, the limits of the possible.” CT
FIND MORE about Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi on her website
FIND MORE about Jeanette Mundt’s Born Athlete American series
READ MORE ESPN and The Undefeated declared Simone Biles the Most Dominant Athlete of 2018
FIND MORE about Simone Biles on her website, her Instagram, and at USA Gymnastics and the US Olympics
In 2016, Simone Biles wrote an autobiography, “Courage to Soar: A Body in Motion, A Life in Balance.” In addition, several other books document her historic career.
Installation view of at JEANETTE MUNDT, Born Athlete American series (4), 2017-19, Whitney Biennial 2019, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, N.Y. (May 17-Sept. 22, 2019). From left, the paintings depict Laurie Hernandez, Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, and Biles. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
THENJIWE NIKI NKOSI, “Practice,” 2019 (oil on canvas, 43 1/4 x 55 1/8 x 1 7/8 inches / 110 x 140 x 4.8 cm). | © Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
THENJIWE NIKI NKOSI, “The Judges,” 2019 (Oil on canvas, 40 1/2 x 49 1/4 x 1 7/8 inches / 103 x 125 x 4.8 cm). | © Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, Courtesy Mariane Ibrahim Gallery
Installation view of paintings by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi at Mariane Ibrahim Gallery booth at Frieze New York. The art fair was open to the public May 2-5, 2019. | Photo by Victoria L. Valentine
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