Simon Bull’s Muhammad Ali
By Jennifer Moulaison | Photo by Darren Lovecchio
When it comes to an iconic personality such as Muhammad Ali, few among us are unfamiliar with his legacy. Not merely a champion boxer, Ali leveraged his celebrity to benefit his philanthropic endeavors and civil rights awareness. For internationally renowned abstract artist Simon Bull, the task of portraying one of the most significant figures of the twentieth century was no simple undertaking. And from the fusion of Bull’s unapologetically vibrant technique and Ali’s larger-than-life persona emerged a striking series of portraits.
Bull, whose agent at the time was acquainted with Ali and his wife, Lonnie, coordinated what turned out to be an advantageous merchandising collaboration, using Bull to create a series of portraits for Ali to sign. Shortly after Bull completed the project, he received a phone call from Lonnie and Ali asking that he create portraits of Ali for their home.
“It was a thrilling compliment, and I was delighted at the opportunity,” says Bull. Leaning into the brilliant use of color for which he is known, Bull set out to capture Ali throughout the stages of his life. “It was a particularly unique privilege to create the only chronology of Ali’s life, from when he was a child to when he was matured before his death. However, I encountered that all of the images from his youth were only the cliché black-and-white photos, with which everyone was already so familiar,” says Bull. He wanted to rejuvenate those images and present them in a way that was, in his words, “shocking, so that viewers were compelled to engage with the image[s] in a way they never had done before.”
Bull drew inspiration and direction for the series from the Fauvist art movement, in which artists used color to evoke emotion. “Fauvism turned familiar images on their ear through the use of color. A horse wouldn’t be brown. It would be a bright primary red,” explains Bull. This approach, combined with the inspiration of Ali’s legacy, manifested beautifully in the oversized portraits. “He was obviously a social justice warrior and forged his own path. His career started and emerged out of a desire to set something right, and through that gained such universal appeal. Not everyone loved boxing, but everyone could align with what Ali believed in,” he says.
Beyond the prestigious professional achievement, the collaboration provided was the exceptional personal experience of the project. “It was such a pleasure to work with Ali and Lonnie,” says Bull. “They sort of adopted me, which I could never quite get my head around, but having me on stage, unveiling paintings with them, or inviting me up to Vancouver to speak on their behalf at the film festival were such unforgettable experiences. I kept thinking, ‘I’m just the guy who paints the pictures, how did this happen?’ I’ll be forever grateful for the experience.”