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Art review: Football and Religion: Tales of Hope, Passion and Play (Aga Khan Centre)

04 November 2022

Jonathan Evens views an exhibition exploring faith’s influence in sport

A phenakistiscope still, the digital image of an original drawing by the artist Ed Merlin Murray

A phenakistiscope still, the digital image of an original drawing by the artist Ed Merlin Murray

IF ONE were to be told of a current football exhibition with women footballers featuring as its main image, expectations would be high for an image of the Lionesses victorious at the Euros in the summer. The very different focus of this exhibition becomes apparent in that the key image features the Shimshali sisters — Sumaira Inayat and Karishma Inayat — who have, since 2018, run the Gilgit-Baltistan Girls Football League, Pakistan’s first women-led girls football tournament.

The sisters are Muslims, and this exhibition, as a whole, focuses primarily on the current contribution of Muslims and Christians to football, together with an archive display highlighting both Jewish and Christian contributions. The stories of Muslim women footballers included are one key aspect of an exhibition that challenges stereotypes on several levels. As Karishma says, “I am representing a region that lacks basic facilities yet encourages its daughters to play football and break the patriarchy.”

The exhibition features many stories of hope, passion, and play in the lives of players and professionals, both female and male. These stories are presented through a series of new artworks created by visual artist, illustrator, and animator, Ed Merlin Murray. These include a series of short animations presented as an immersive installation across three walls of the gallery, portraits of players and professionals in the form of traditional football cards presented as a football team, and a phenakistiscope, a revolving turntable piece that reveals a moving image when it is filmed.

Courtesy of Aga Khan Centre GalleryEd Merlin Murray, Yasmin Abukar — animation still, 2022

As the curator, Esen Kaya, says, the exhibition will appeal to a broad audience including young people “who might be passionate about football and dream of reaching the heights of success”; those who appreciate “conversations around football, religion, inclusion, diversity, and identity”; and “those who may be pleasantly surprised by the empowering stories from around the world”.

Murray’s eye-catching digital animations and pen-and-ink portraits represent well the spirit of the interviewees, who range from Aksa Nisar, a 17-year-old South Asian player in the early stages of her career, to Cheikhou Kouyaté, a Senegalese professional footballer who plays for Crystal Palace. Their stories, ideas, and experiences reveal how the worlds of faith and football are becoming increasingly interwoven, as awareness grows of the cultural and religious needs of players and of others involved in the game, and how societal attitudes and ideas are evolving as a result.

Courtesy of Aga Khan Centre GalleryEd Merlin Murray, Matt Baker — football card, 2022

Murray is an artist, illustrator, and animator whose commercial work is often found in the world of music, and whose personal work is focused largely on human consciousness and the brain, often portraying his own life in dealing with mental illness (he is bipolar), and is informed by current thinking in the world of neuroscience. It was his urban and skilful style of illustration and animation which attracted Kaya’s interest for this exhibition, although Murray considers himself a strange choice, as he grew up hating the idea of football and is a fairly devout atheist. Interestingly, his experience of parenthood has led to a greater appreciation of football, while his contact with footballers of faith has posed a challenge to his atheism.

That is because the show celebrates football’s ability to champion social causes, promote marginalised voices, and create opportunities for inclusion and diversity in ways that no other sport can — as, for example, players pray on the pitch and fans observe religious rituals in tandem. It is also because of the commitment of figures such as Matt Baker, National Director for England and Pastoral Support Director in English Football, Sports Chaplaincy UK; and Linvoy Primus, an English former professional footballer involved with the Christian charity Faith and Football, who have both combined their twin passions of faith and football for many years.

Among the archive material shown, books such as Thank God for Football! reveal that nearly one third of the clubs that have played in the English FA Premier League owe their existence to a church, while Four Four Jew: Football, fans and faith and Does Your Rabbi Know You Are Here? uncover a hidden history of Jewish involvement in English football.

The reference materials also shine a light on how far women’s football has come internationally, from archival material on Nettie J. Honeyball, founder of the British Ladies’ Football Club, the first known women’s Association football club, through A Woman’s Game: The rise, fall and rise again of women’s football by Suzanne Wrack, to the Shimshali sisters. Christianity features in a song sheet for the FA Cup final which includes “Abide with me”; a cigarette card of a player who was a devout Christian and refused to play on Good Friday and Christmas Day throughout his career; and a Church Times article on star players of the current generation of England footballers who embody Christian faith and values.

The archive display makes apparent the distance travelled in regard to all these aspects of the game and the communities that play it. Just as one example, in the original “golden age” of women’s football, crowds of 50,000 gathered to watch in the period before the Football Association instituted a ban in England which lasted from 1921 to 1970 and prevented member clubs from allowing women’s football on their grounds.

The current stories collected for this exhibition are, in contrast, far more positive. Dr Mark Doidge, Principal Research Fellow in the School of Sport and Health Sciences at the University of Brighton, in an essay written for the exhibition, argues that football “as a sport and as an industry should recognise that religion is a key part of many people’s identity and sense of self, and work hard to be inclusive for all”. This exhibition suggests that, for many, that aim is being realised.

“Football and Religion: Tales of Hope, Passion and Play”, a mixed-media exhibition with works by Ed Merlin Murray, is at the Aga Khan Centre Gallery, 10 Handyside Street, London N1, until 4 December. www.agakhancentre.org.uk

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