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The Ultimate Icon – Pelé: Art, Life, Football

The iconic Pelé is re-imagined through the eyes of artists and photographers


In this new exhibition, two polar aspects of culture culminate in one exhibition. Yet the focus is not merely on Pelé’s football career, but instead on how he came to transcend it.

The collection looks at Pelé’s life and career through the eyes of artists and photographers and focuses on how he has come to become the ultimate icon of the sport, based on the Halcyon Gallery’s 2015 show.

Widely regarded as one of the best football players of all time, playing for Santos and the Brazilian national team at just age 16, Pelé long surpassed his status as a footballer and soon became a celebrity in his own right.

Within exhibitions, focusing on just one person tends to be retrospectives on artists over their lifetime, yet rarely do they focus on those whose lifetime has been the subject of so many artists.

As the all-encompassing subject of the show, his face is everywhere — his portrait repeated and reinterpreted throughout the gallery, refracted through different attempts to capture just a small amount of what has been so captivating about him internationally.

Despite the fact, I’m relatively apathetic towards football, and to a certain extent relatively unaware of Pelé in the context of football; you’re forced to be in awe of him, consumed in fan mentality.

The various portraits try to grapple encompassing his legacy. Though the images have nothing to say necessarily, their power is in that the image is so overwhelmingly echoed around the room. I found the photographs particularly compelling, at once poetic and dramatic, they provoke a nostalgia for football.

Yet it varies from portraits to prints, to installations and even to crude wax works — though seemingly from different perspectives, you are admittedly just seeing the repeated image.

Most are typified by bright pop art style colours, and after all, football is a game which is rooted in colour; it distinguishes one team from another and defines a player’s allegiance. This can also be read into perhaps Warhol’s desire to also capture Pelé in his Athletes Series in 1979.

This was one of my highlights in the exhibit, having a chance to see Warhol’s own portrait of Pelé, which was rooted in Warhol’s obsession with celebrities. Warhol himself stated, “Pelé was one of the few who contradicted my theory: instead of 15 minutes of fame, he will have 15 centuries.”

Being one of Warhol’s subjects is perhaps one of the highest acclaims to stardom, and exemplifies Pelé’s wide-ranging appeal. The collection reflects how strong an identity Pelé holds, something that contemporary footballers often lack – often being held as unlikeable and two-dimensional characters.

Although in general, I find it problematic how footballers are iconised in culture, this exhibition is done with a fondness and likeability which seems to be generally devoid from the sport today — which is instead defined by corruption and obscene salaries. This exhibition instead depicts a well-deserved idol of the sport.

Pelé: Art, Life, Football is on from 18th May 2017 — 4th March 2018 at the National Football Gallery.