Political Activism, Civil Rights and Cultural Diversity in Sport

As a barometer of cultural change seen through the lens of sport and sporting culture, the Basil Sellers Art Prize has acted as a fascinating marker of the attendant shifts in attitude concerning race, ethics, equality, community connection and ‘fair play’ on and off the sporting field. 

Once upon a time... (detail) (2013-14) by Tony AlbertIan Potter Museum of Art

Artists are creative provocateurs who arouse audience sensibilities and consciousness by acknowledging the multifarious contested human histories that are pivotal to the development of fundamental human rights. History shows us that sport also has the power to arouse strong feelings in audiences everywhere, and so, too, have human rights issues within the sporting arena and beyond been the catalyst for widespread global movements that indicate the continuous human drive to strive towards equity and a better world. In this context, both artists and sports people powerfully communicate the capacity of creative endeavour and sporting achievement to promote inclusivity and cultural diversity. A defining moment in the racial history of Australian sport occurred in 1993 when two Indigenous Australian Rules footballers, Nicky Winmar and Gilbert McAdam, endured a day of abuse at the hands of Collingwood supporters. At the conclusion of the game, Winmar lifted his guernsey and pointed to his black skin in a moment of defiance and pride. Captured by photographer Wayne Ludbey, the image graced the front pages of the next day’s newspapers. This historic moment is now rightly recognised as the catalyst for the movement against racism in Australian football, and indeed Australian sport more broadly, both on and off the field. Twenty years later, during the week that the same sport celebrated the contribution of Indigenous players, a 13-year-old girl called Sydney Swans footballer Adam Goodes an ape: evidence that the fight against racism has a long way to go.

A white hero for black Australia (2011) by Richard Bell (with Emory Douglas)Ian Potter Museum of Art

1968: Black Power Salute

Richard Bell speaks through art with a political voice that often communicates justice issues, sometimes with overt confrontational imagery and at other times with humour that reflects the ability to laugh in the face of adversity. In the collaborative painting A white hero for black Australia (2011) Bell in collaboration with Emory Douglas, an artist and former Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until its closure in the early 1980s, celebrate the bravery of three young athletes: a white Australian, Peter Norman, and two African Americans, Tommy Smith and John Carlos. The athletes stood together in solidarity at their 1968 Olympic Games award ceremony – Smith won the 200-metre race in a world record time and was awarded the gold medal, with Norman in second place winning silver and Carlos in third winning bronze. On the podium, Smith and Carlos raised their fists in a ‘black power salute’ while Norman wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge to communicate his support.

A simple act (detail) (2006/2008) by Kate Daw and Stewart RussellIan Potter Museum of Art

Badge of Honour: the Olympic Project for Human

The anthem started… he started to sing… I can’t see what’s happening… I don’t know if they have gone through with it or not… six or eight bars into the anthem the voice just tailed off and I thought, “they’ve done it”. Kate Daw and Stewart Russell are prompted to ask whether any noble value might emerge from sport. They find their answer in the life of Olympian Peter Norman, who supported the civil rights protest of African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Mexico Games. Their message is clear: Norman is a winner not simply because he shared an Olympic podium but because he put a commitment to human rights before his own personal interests. Daw and Russell are drawn to the elements of visual intensity in the incident: badges, logos, uniforms and gestures frozen by newspaper photographers. Sport may be seen by some as the antithesis of art and yet it invests just as heavily in the power and political resonance of the image.

Once upon a time... (2013-14) by Tony AlbertIan Potter Museum of Art

A long way to go

Tony Albert’s works investigate ongoing racism in Australian sport and its continued presence in society more broadly. Daddy’s little girl (after Gordon Bennett) responds to the story of an NRL coach excusing his reference to an Indigenous player as a ‘black c...’ as merely a casual remark and clubroom banter with no malice, while the more recent Once upon a time was made following the crowd abuse directed towards AFL footballer Adam Goodes. While the making of these two works is separated by only four years, this short period is an analogy of the ongoing racism present in society. Moreover, it is also a comment on the fact that racism is a learnt behaviour, passed down through generations. Both works are anchored by letters Albert sent to the late Gordon Bennett, one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists and a champion of Indigenous rights. Albert’s work is a complex interrogation of the human condition, memory and representation. He asks us to consider how Aboriginal people have been treated throughout history and challenges the racial stereotyping, cultural misrepresentation and the long-standing power imbalance between the colonisers and the colonised.

Australia 1 (2012) by Brook AndrewIan Potter Museum of Art

Empowerment, cultural
pride and aspiration

Brook Andrew explores sport as an avenue for promoting cultural pride and aspiration. Drawing from nineteenth century ethnographic material collected from a government expedition to the Murray and Darling river junctions, Australia 1 (2012) captures the social bonding and camaraderie of a particular traditional game of the local Nyeri Nyeri Aboriginal nation. Andrew’s work points to a history of sport that was silenced as a strategy and legacy of colonisation. The diverse sports developed by, for example, various south-east Australian Aboriginal groups, were integrated into their respective social customs but largely erased in the wake of European settlement. This refers not only to the athletic prowess, competition and pride engendered by traditional hunting methods, but also to games played for the purposes of social bonding, and for camaraderie. The successes of high-profile Aboriginal Australians across a breadth of sporting codes have contributed inestimably to the sense of empowerment and positive esteem within some Aboriginal communities. Collectively, The hunter (2005), Monument 4 (2011) and Australia 1 reflect Brook Andrew’s ongoing interest in traditions and stereotypes as well as the mass media and communication between cultures. They are stylistically diverse, but conceptually unified by Andrew’s interest in celebrating traditions of Australian Aboriginal athleticism.

Installation view (2008) by Josie Kunoth Petyarre and Dinni Kunoth KemarreIan Potter Museum of Art

A shared sense of community: Being there

The inward and invisible aspects of sport are embedded in a far larger field of activity—the expansive, celebratory carnival of the sporting community. The competitor may focus on being ‘in the zone’ but the fan revels in ‘being there’, witnessing and sharing the event. ‘Being there’ is where a community finds its focus, discovers its role models and sees to its collective health. In Indigenous communities, sport is a powerful force for social cohesion and a source of pride. Exclusion, marginalisation and racial vilification are being challenged and the Indigenous presence in the game is celebrated in the achievements of heroes and the AFL’s annual Dreamtime round. For Josie Kunoth Petyarre and Dinni Kunoth Kemarre, football matches have a family focus and are occasions to meet a far-flung community. Carving and painting stars from AFL and local teams is a process that gives voice to family and community passions. Their paintings and sculptures traverse the full geographical and organisational spectrum of Australian sport, ranging from the Melbourne Cricket Ground to a local league in Central Australia.

waru (production still) (2009-10) by Vernon Ah Kee, Producer and director/editor: Suzanne Howard, and Camera: Jason Hargreaves, Justin CeratoIan Potter Museum of Art

It’s not [always] cricket

For Vernon Ah Kee, cricket is a sport with strong personal and family associations. But it is also connected with ideas that he has pursued in earlier artworks: the ways in which urban indigenous Australians engage with white Australian culture, and the ways in which exclusion and invisibility are normalised in everyday language and behaviour. For an indigenous community, cricket is both a common, and a contested, ground. Cricket is about family and community activity but also historical exclusion and racism. Innisfail Waru is an all-indigenous cricket team competing in the Cricket Far North league of tropical Queensland. Like many sporting clubs, it focuses on enhancing participation, health and fitness. To capture the character ambition of Innisfail Waru, Ah Kee has reflected on the ways in which indigenous Australians and cricket itself have been represented. In place of the predominately anthropological tradition of indigenous portraiture, Ah Kee introduces a casual confidence tinged with a larrikin edge.

Koonibba roosters 1906 to 2016 (detail) (2016) by Grant HobsonIan Potter Museum of Art

Endurance: Survival and resistance

Grant Hobson is a photographer whose work explores themes of masculinity, sport and cultural identity. In this major work for the Basil Sellers Art Prize, Hobson travelled to Ceduna, on the far west coast of South Australia, to create a new work in collaboration with the oldest Aboriginal football club in Australia, the Koonibba Roosters. In the early 1900s, Lutheran missionaries built a mission at Koonibba, 40 kilometres from Ceduna. Under Australian government policy of the day, the movements of Aboriginal people were restricted to a mission. In 1906, the missionaries at the now Koonibba Mission helped establish a football club. The first Koonibba football team involved everyone living on the mission and the missionaries introduced football as a means of control. However, football became a means of escape from the everyday for the Aboriginal people and a way of earning respect on the only ‘level playing field’ in town. For Hobson and the local community, the Koonibba Football Club is a powerful symbol of survival and resistance, the community enduring, over time, a harsh social and political environment. Hobson’s Koonibba Roosters 1906 to 2016 (2016) represents this struggle across generations through an assemblage of photographs of current and past football players, and weekly updates of the scores for the current season. Koonibba Roosters 1906 to 2016 is a work about resilience, about a community holding together despite disadvantage, discrimination and generations-long struggle. Grant Hobson gratefully acknowledges the support received from the South Australian Museum, Adelaide to provide access to the The Norman Barnett Tindale Collection and ANCYN Screen Printers and Philip Campbell Design.

Firing line, December 2, 1968 (detail) (2016) by Abdul AbdullahIan Potter Museum of Art

Divisive nationalism

Muhammad Ali’s 1968 interview with William F. Buckley, the conservative host of American current affairs television show Firing Line, forms the subject matter of Abdul Abdullah’s work. During this interview the champion boxer defended his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War due to his status as a Nation of Islam minister. Ali’s stand had significant personal consequences, including a criminal conviction, the suspension of his boxing licence and the stripping of his World Heavyweight title. His interview with Buckley provided a high profile forum for Ali to contend that the severity of these repercussions stemmed from racial and religious prejudice. Firing Line, December 2, 1968 takes inspiration from the way Muhammad Ali used the visibility of his profession to speak out against injustice. Abdul Abdullah similarly sees art as a means for activism. Through his work, Abdullah aims to expose the divisive nationalism that currently shapes politics in Australia. A seventh generation Australian whose father converted to Islam when he was a child, the artist grew up in the wake of 9/11 and has watched the religion he identifies with become increasingly politicised. In this work Abdullah merges the worlds of sport and art to raise awareness of bigotry and to build a more positive identity for the Muslim faith in Australia.

Surfing the Bombora (2013) by Rew HanksIan Potter Museum of Art


Rew Hanks taps into a long history of printmaking as political commentary in his intricate and darkly humorous linoprints. A patchwork of cultural references, his work juxtaposes history and pop culture to shed light on Australia’s hidden narratives. At the centre of Hanks’ series is the figure of Captain James Cook, who the artist depicts as a symbol of British conquest. In Surfing the Bombora (2013) the explorer rides a wave with a cane toad on board, a dual reference to the arrival by sea of both colonists and introduced species, each wave of invasion wreaking devastation on native inhabitants. In Playing for Keeps (2016), the Captain takes to the cricket field with Adam Goodes, Germaine Greer, Mary Wollstonecraft and Nova Peris in a comment on racism and sexism in sport. This high stakes cricket match is a fight for native title, with Cook batting against an historical team of Aboriginal fielders who in 1868 were the first Australians to embark on a cricketing tour of England. The subtle variations in tone and complex patterning in Hanks’ work reveal him to be a virtuoso printmaker, whose dexterity with his medium is rivalled only by the incisiveness of his observations about the ways that the unresolved legacies of Australia’s past continue to blight its present.

Playing for keeps, Rew Hanks, 2016, From the collection of: Ian Potter Museum of Art
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Wonderland (2013/2014) by Khaled SabsabiIan Potter Museum of Art

Cultural pride and

Filmed in Beirut in 2011, Khaled Sabsabi’s work Tawla (table) (2012) focusses on six different stages of the same game of backgammon. The game is understood to be thousands of years old and considered equal parts chance and strategy. Sabsabi uses this competitive and cultural activity as a metaphor for the complex and deeply embedded relationships between countries in the Middle East. Sasabi’s two-screen video Wonderland (2013-2014) depicts the official supporter group of the Western Sydney Wanderers, known as the Red and Black Bloc (RBB). In this work, the RBB are the exposed aspect of a much larger project about unity, identity, power and wonderment. Wonderland suggests that the unbridled fanaticism of the RBB stems as much from a pride in its wider, largely migrant community as of its beloved team’s on-field performance. This is a triumph of a sporting team, and the triumph of self-determination. After years of lobbying, the Wanderers entered the A-league in the 2012–13 season, and have since become something of a cultural phenomenon. For Sabsabi, the success story of the Wanderers is the success story of one of the most culturally diverse and politically significant communities in Australia—his community of Western Sydney.

Inshalla surfboard (2009/2010) by Phillip GeorgeIan Potter Museum of Art

Coastal barriers

Although surfing is associated with ‘alternative’ lifestyles, beach and surf culture can be closed and xenophobic. The coast, especially the rocky coast around Sydney, has often been characterised as a kind of rampart, a barrier protecting our land. Beaches are treated as tribal territory which locals must defend against outsiders. The sun-bronzed Aussie surfer is an ideal figure that excludes, sometimes aggressively, beach goers who are not male or of European descent. In contrast, Phillip George, a Bondi surfer, adheres to the principle that ‘In the surf, we are all the same’. He introduces into surf aesthetics those cultures that are currently feared in order to confront the political conflicts embedded in contemporary paranoia about coastal security. The decorative designs inlaid under the polyurethane decks of surfboards have long been an important part of surfing aesthetics. While these designs can be strictly commercial (manufacturers’ logos) or have become clichéd (endless sets of perfect waves breaking on Pacific shores), they often have a mystical or psychedelic character. George introduces a new kind of design, based on Islamic calligraphy, tiles and architectural decoration. Inshalla surfboard (2009-10) is a transcultural gesture, inviting an ‘alternative’ culture to become genuinely inclusive. 

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