As a child on airplane journeys, Modupeola Fadugba would always try to spot the number of swimming pools from her window seat. "It tells me something about how people spend their money and time," the Nigeria-based artist tells Broadly. "Flying over many American suburbs, there’s a huge density of mostly aqua blue rectangles, sometimes circles, other times squiggles. In comparison, the view over Nigerian cities offers a far more spurious concentration." As a toddler growing up in Togo, Fadugba was frightened of the sea. She didn’t learn to swim until she was 11, forced into it with compulsory laps at the pool of her boarding school in the UK.
The question of who gets to swim—and who doesn’t—is not an apolitical one. In the US, white people are twice as likely to know how to swim as Black people. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) research has shown that Black children between the ages of five to 14 are three times more likely to die from accidental drowning than their white peers. The disparity is commonly attributed to the long and painful history of segregation in public pools.
Swimming pools, Fadugba says, are also a rare sight in Nigeria. "It’s interesting how the pool can be an emblem of luxury in one place and one of risk in another," she says. "Even with space and resources provided, many Nigerian families—my parents included—will not build a swimming pool, for the immense fear of someone drowning in it."
The self-taught painter’s new show at Gallery 1957, Dreams from the Deep End, is a meditation on the racialized history of swimming, and an exploration of "Black swimming bodies," as she puts it. Using gold leaf and burnt paper, Fadugba depicts Black swimmers at rest and in motion, individually and in synchronized groups. Groups of women move freely through the water, kicking their heels through the surface. Others tranquilly pose by the pool, steadily holding the gaze of the viewer.
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"When you are swimming, you focus largely on your breathing," Fadugba explains. "It is a form of meditation, a freeing of the mind. There is something particularly moving about the way these bodies gather in formation as if assembling for a meeting."
Fadugba taught herself how to paint—she studied chemical engineering and economics, and spent years working in education before finally making the jump to art. Her most recent work was produced in collaboration with the Harlem Honeys and Bears, an all-Black synchronized swim group for senior citizens that also offers free swimming lessons to children. Fadugba attended their rehearsals and swim heats, sharing meals and bus journeys with them to competitions against other synchronized swimming groups.
"Beyond the swimming pool, the sheer scope of their individual stories is breathtakingly vast, spanning generations, communities, and life experiences," Fadugba says. The oldest member of the group—a New Yorker named Lettice—just got married at the age of 96. "Listening to Lettice beam about this new phase reminds me that life, like water, moves people in directions that one could never anticipate."
"Harlem has always been a rich breeding ground for creativity and activism, invigorating the civil rights and Black power movement—historical moments which have seeped into how this group thinks of community and action," Fadugba adds. "These swimmers function as a visual tool to explore the power of togetherness to defy the odds and transcend debilitating stereotypes."
For Fadugba, water offers a medium for both movement and connection—a place where people can swim free of the constraints of society and "[draw] attention to how people organize themselves vs. how they are made to be organized in the social order."
"You can’t possibly decouple the current state of Black America from the legacy of the slave trade, the prison industrial complex, the dissolution of the Black family," Fadugba says. "These are not unrelated issues; they are inextricably intertwined with the history of this community, but what has brought them together is their love for swimming.
"With the synchronized swimmers, I think about how the members of the team come together to align their objectives within the community, their collective coordination, and ultimately, the beauty they offer the world."
Modupeola Fadugba, Dreams from the Deep End is on now until 31 October 2018 at Gallery 1957, Accra, Ghana.