Nina Chanel Abney Basketball Court Murals at Chickasaw Heritage Park, 2015, Memphis and University of North Carolina, 2018, Chapel Hill

Chickasaw Heritage Park is a sacred space settlement from as far back as the early 16th Century. Once the stronghold of Chickasaw chief Chisca, the park holds two ceremonial mounds constructed by Paleo-Indians. The mounds were excavated and repurposed in the Civil War as gun batteries. At one point, the city of Memphis transformed the prehistoric (Mississippian) Native American village into an amusement park, with a bandstand and dance pavilion constructed on a larger mound; down at the base stood a bowling alley, shooting gallery, and restaurant. Today, the park is mostly sleepy, inhabited by dog walkers, cyclists, and a small group of guys playing half-court basketball. I came to see the court, which was one of the first undertakings by the nascent Project Backboard.

Below their sneakers are the ghostly remains of a once vibrant mural painted by Nina Chanel Abney in 2015. In its eight years as an active space that sits in a relentless sun, the brilliance of the mural has faded, its colors gradually becoming an echo of their former selves. And, as odd as it is to say, it now has this beautifully gentle, weathered grace. This piece was a bit more subtle to begin with, as it focused on three areas of the court: the top of the key, the free throw line extended, and the center circle. The remains of the court were left its original deep, stony grey. 

Her design that lives in the lane is an energetic combination of geometric shapes, text, and statuesque caricature faces. The symmetrical design on one side is mirror-reversed on the other, with one lane starting with a blue color scheme and the other beginning with yellow. Xs are a recurring theme in her paintings as symbols of suppression and aggression or suppression histories. Here, they feel like a shot-chart or a space to get to for a high-percentage shot. 

I noticed online that Project Backboard recently launched a successful crowd-sourced fundraiser to restore Abney’s Memphis mural. It’s an important piece, partly because of the trajectory of Abney’s career since its completion and the ascent of Project Backboard. The non-profit was founded in 2012 when Dan Peterson moved to Memphis to work for the NBA’s Grizzlies. He traveled around the city as hoopers do for the best courts and games. An alarming thing he found was that most of the city’s public park courts lacked a crucial feature: painted lines. No free-throw line, three-point line, or out-of-bounds lines… out at the grass. What started as a practical civil service turned into something greater when Peterson was working on the court in Pierotti Park in 2014 beside these big, blazing red, orange, and purple sculptures on the side of the court. Peterson approached the artist, Anthony Lee, to ask if he would continue the color scheme off the sidelines and into the design of the court. 

At first glance, the intersection of art and basketball may seem unlikely, but the court is a vivid canvas for this harmonious blend of creativity and competition. It is not just a place for athletic endeavors but a space where artistic expression and functional design merge, creating an engaging and visually captivating environment that transcends its utilitarian purpose. These murals create this perfect moment, where instead of standing a certain number of feet back or viewing from behind a stanchion, these works allow visitors to be fully immersed in the art. 

Four years ago, I was in Chapel Hill for studio visits with the MFA students at the University of North Carolina and had the opportunity to visit another basketball court mural by Abney outside of Morrison Residence Hall on campus. Abney arrived in Carolina as the recipient of the Duke/UNC Nannerl Keohane Distinguished Visiting Professorship, working with students between the two schools. 

The court was a collaborative work with students, addressing their social and political concerns, ideas, and interests. As a class, they poured through the Wilson Library’s digital archives to explore the university’s past and present life. Together, they created a design that touches on race, class, gender dynamics, and police violence. The tension arising from these difficult conversations is cut by her unique visual language, with Pop Art and Abstract Expressionism elements. Though this court is much busier, much bouncier, the symbols fall into their own perfect rhythm. 

Similar to the work in Memphis, the UNC mural draws from hieroglyphs, emojis, and eye-popping colors. Xs, hearts, and open hands are peppered throughout. The painting is fun and as eager-to-please as it is sure of its ferocity.