William Whitney is a writer and critic currently based in New York. He is a candidate in the School of Visual Arts MFA Art Writing and Criticism program.
In the context of the Negro problem neither whites nor blacks, for excellent reasons of their own, have the faintest desire to look back; but I think that the past is all that makes the present coherent, and further, that the past will remain horrible for exactly as long as we refuse to assess it honestly.
—James Baldwin, “Autobiographical Notes,” 1955
Seeking to reinvigorate forgotten objects and spaces through unorthodox methods, Theaster Gates aims to create platforms that will spark conversation and provide underserved communities with the means to participate in their own revitalization. Born in Chicago, the youngest of nine children, Gates still lives in the city, melding his real-life experiences with the skills and knowledge he acquired in academia, where he majored in urban planning as an undergraduate, then pursued an interdisciplinary combination of fine arts and religious studies two years later.
Deeply cognizant of his role as both an artist in the world and a black artist in America, Gates has always understood the dynamics of capturing the public’s eye. His first major art project, Plates Convergence (2007), at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, saw him host a seated dinner for one hundred guests, serving traditional Southern food while introducing the audience to the work of Shoji Yamaguchi, a legendary Japanese ceramist whose plates are specifically designed for the food of African Americans. With each guest seated at a specific spot to ensure dynamic and thought-provoking conversations, the event was a resounding success, even as it became clear that the story of Yamaguchi was entirely fabricated. Seeking to hone his practice to resonate as both object- and engagement-based, Plates Convergence deployed Gates’s status as an outsider to create a conversation around use value and locality, while also highlighting the power of art created without the influence of major institutions. Gates credits the project with helping him to establish an outsider practice, and to realize that working effectively outside major institutions could eventually be the key to attracting those institutions’ interest.1
Gates trained in pottery but he incorporates sculpture, painting, video, performance, and music into his practice, refusing to limit himself to a single medium in part because he believes that different issues require different platforms. In 2010, Gates was represented in both the Whitney Biennial and a solo exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum. For the Biennial, which served as his formal introduction to a larger public, he revamped the museum’s sculpture court with found objects, transforming the space into a gathering area for performances, social engagement, and contemplation. Through the duration of the show, he used the space to meet with historians, artists, and street musicians, hosting a series of talks and musical performances. In Milwaukee, Gates’s show To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter featured a 250-person gospel choir singing musical adaptations of the poetic inscriptions that the nineteenth-century enslaved American ceramist Dave Drake left on pots he made. Accompanying the choir were original ceramic pieces from local artisans. The first artist to reinterpret Drake’s work and legacy, Gates connected the conditions for African Americans in the antebellum South to concerns regarding labor and craft in present-day America.2
Gates has also sought to create change outside his studio practice through his Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit platform directed toward neighborhood regeneration and cultural development through the use of educational and arts programming. The foundation, established in 2010, develops affordable housing, studio, and live-work space, with many of its initiatives focusing on revitalizing Chicago’s South Side. While it isn’t necessary for artists to have more than one kind of practice in order to have an intellectual impact, Gates recognizes that in order to make a real impact with his community program, he requires a multitude. “In my case, I needed two, or three, or even four or five different platforms, because that seemed the truth of the devastating need in the community where I live,” Gates says. “If there is no community development corporation, if there is no bank that’s loaning locally, there are very few allies to black and brown artists.”3 Rather than running from the issues in his community, Gates does what he can to help, yet he insists that he is not an activist but rather just an artist, calling this kind of work one of the beauties of the profession:
The beauty of being an artist, is that you have the freedom to talk about the things that you want to talk about, and to be generous in the direction of those things. There are times when I want to talk about homelessness and poverty, and then there are other times when I want to talk about the colour red, . . . [or] want to continue what had been a verbal conversation into the material world. Or there’s just a set of ideas that deal with my past. Having the freedom to materialize whatever I will is the gift of the artist. It’s the gift that you have when you don’t have much else.4
An eager mind with a keen eye for detail, Gates deals with topics that hover just beneath the surface of society’s collective consciousness. He created the Civil Tapestry series by cutting up and stitching decommissioned fire hoses over wooden supports to make singular works of abstract art. While the fire hoses reference the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, Gates’s use of readymade objects recalls the practices initiated by Marcel Duchamp and followed through by many other artists. In providing the hoses with new meaning, Gates reminds viewers of the nuances of the fight for racial equality, asking them to grapple with how quickly relatively recent historical moments can turn vague, their presence acknowledged but no longer examined. In repurposing the fire hoses, he makes a charged statement through modest means, transforming readymade objects into a quiet demand that America’s history be remembered. What he calls his “acts of transformation” force viewers to contend with the power that objects can take on when placed in an artistic setting.5 Redemption is a key motivation for Gates, in terms of both materials and history, and as a way of extending art into issues of social justice and distribution.
In his exhibition Amalgam, Gates uses a wide spectrum of mediums, including sculpture, assemblage, video, and sound, to explore social histories of migration and interracial relations. An amalgam is a mixture or fusion of different elements, a fitting term for Gates’s revalidation of discarded materials. The exhibition focuses on the small island of Malaga, Maine, where in 1912 the state’s then governor, Frederick W. Plaisted, expelled a population of forty-five people who were poor and either multiracial or in an interracial relationship. The origins of this community are believed to trace back to 1794, when Benjamin Darling, an African American married to a white woman, Sarah Proverbs, bought an island near Malaga, Horse Island (now called Harbor Island). One of Darling’s children sold Horse Island in 1847, when the family is thought to have moved to Malaga, which was unoccupied.6 In the early 1900s, Maine underwent drastic increases in real estate values and tourism. In this context the residents of Malaga Island were scorned for the unbecoming wooden huts in which they lived; at the same time, with the rise of the eugenics movement, they faced disdain for their darker skin and mixed-race features. The term “Malaga” became a stigma within the neighboring white communities.
In 1903, the legislature placed Malaga in the township of Phippsburg, in Sagadahoc County.7 Fearing association with the island, the town sued successfully to repeal the legislation, leaving Malaga under state control and its residents wards of the state. Upon visiting the island in 1911, Governor Plaisted remarked, “The best plan would be to burn down the shacks with all their filth. Certainly the conditions are not creditable to our state, and we ought not to have such things near our front door, and I do not think that a like condition can be found in Maine, although there are some pretty bad localities elsewhere.”8 In a series of quick legal actions, the state awarded ownership of Malaga to the Perry family of Phippsburg, who proceeded to sell the island back to the state for $400.9 Following this purchase, the incumbent mixed-race community was informed of its eviction from the island, to be scattered through the mainland. Some were involuntarily committed to psychiatric institutions, while others suffered internment. Originally planned to be a tourist destination, the island has remained uninhabited since this community was removed, as if haunted or damned.
In 2018, Gates began a three-year residency at Colby College, Maine, as the school’s first distinguished visiting artist and as director of artist initiatives at its Lunder Institute for American Art. He learned of the island’s history in his first week at Colby while out on a weekend boat ride with friends. His experience in Maine aligned with earlier explorations he had made into broad questions about the conventions of history: how it is told, who it is told for, and what narratives and experiences it omits or elides (more often than not in the United States, those of African Americans). To Gates, “How we reckon with history is super important, and how we either choose to reconcile these deep complexities with honor or we choose not to says a lot about the character of our nation.”10 Colonialist practices are so deeply embedded in our society that they are often overlooked, and even when acknowledged, they are rarely scrutinized carefully. Yet what makes the story of Malaga so pertinent for an exhibition such as Amalgam is the discomfort one feels in learning what occurred there, and in imagining the horrific experience of Malaga’s residents. That discomfort is only intensified by the fact that the story remains largely suppressed a century later.
The first work that viewers encountered in the Paris installation of Amalgam was Altar (2019), a giant slate-shingled section of a rooftop. While the work’s impact came from its powerful incongruity and surreality, the gesture reflected both the houses destroyed on Malaga Island and the prevalence of slate rooftops all over Baron Haussmann’s Paris. The work also references Gates’s father, a roofer. Altars have religious meaning as places of sacrifice, and Gates’s Altar is no different, evoking the slaughter attached to the idea of racial purity. The author Richard Dyer, in his well-known 1997 essay “White,” discusses the rhetoric of whiteness built into the United States: “This property of whiteness, to be everything and nothing, is the source of its representational power. . . . if the invisibility of whiteness colonises the definition of other norms—class, gender, heterosexuality, nationality and so on—it also masks whiteness as itself a category.”11 In regards to Malaga Island, Gates acknowledges the role of whiteness, but rather than engage in an examination of what it is to be white, he probes the beauty and fear associated with being “the other,” using his artistic language to challenge viewers with an exhibition that highlights the dramatization of race.
Gates’s multipart installation Island Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism (2019) unites traditional African artifacts with fictional archival documents depicting an imagined archaeological study of Malaga. A sign, enclosed in a vitrine elevated on a central podium, reads “In the end nothing is pure” in neon-green letters. Presented thus as a museological artifact, the sign exemplifies Gates’s ideas of beauty, referring both to interraciality and to his own combinatory art practices. Situated next to Island Modernity Institute . . . in Paris was a blackboard bearing a chalk sketch, a concise history of America’s relationship to black people, slavery, and miscegenation. The blackboard also put forward the idea of a department of tourism for Malaga Island and presented a stream of consciousness regarding famous mixed-race and black people who can “pass”: actors Jesse Williams and Halle Berry, musician Alicia Keys, athlete Colin Kaepernick (dubbed “the kneeling football player”), and “some models like Winnie” (Harlow, who has vitiligo). Each medium combined with the other to envelop viewers in an immersive experience that was both educational and provocative. Gates conjoined the idea of the amalgam with his own resistance, as an artist and thinker, to narrowness about what constitutes a work of art; each gallery offered disparate experiences thanks to his careful use of distinct mediums in a flurry of varied tones and emotional draws.
Gates’s exploration of interracial identity serves as a reminder of a period when fear was rampant and difference was used as an excuse to subject others to cruelty and hate—issues still relevant under the current presidential administration. Coupled with that reminder is an open question posed to Gates’s viewers regarding the beauty and strength of mixed-race people, whom society so often presents as enigmas. Such people have attachments to different histories that are typically not examined through collective discussion. This makes their existences unique, both blessing and curse, with few examples to follow in dealing with the conundrum of being biracial.
Amalgam deals with the past in an unexpected way. The feeling throughout the exhibition is one not of outrage but rather of sorrowful and remorseful reflection, a haunting sadness tied to the unchallenged understanding of difference as abhorrent. The show touches a nerve in current society, where immigrants are demonized everywhere and tensions are growing among bordering countries. “Dépaysement,” one of many French words with no exact English equivalent, describes a feeling of homesickness or disorientation in being away from one’s home country. It came to mind as I reflected on Amalgam: the island’s residents were banished from their homes, unable to return because of the greed and fear that blinded some to their humanity.
Gates has also made a film, Dance of Malaga (2019), in collaboration with the American choreographer Kyle Abraham. The work mixes interracial scenes from archival feature films selected by Gates with a performance choreographed and performed by Abraham. The soundtrack—by the Black Monks, an experimental music ensemble, formed in 2008, led by Gates with the musicians Yaw Agyeman, Mikel Patrick Avery, Michael Drayton, and Khari Lemuel—is as eerie as it is enthralling, imparting a sense of both beauty and dread.12 The Black Monks experiment with the specifics of black sound, combining black music of the South, such as the blues, gospel, and wailing, with East Asian monastic traditions to give life to the found objects that Gates collects. Their presence, in the film and in general, provides the audience with an understanding of the black voice in its utter uniqueness, and speaks to the experiences that Gates seeks to exemplify in his art.
In the final station of the Paris exhibition, So Bitter, This Curse of Darkness (2019), bronze casts of African masks were set atop roughly hewn pillars of ash wood. On the wall adjacent to the works was a quote from Gates: “These trees were dying. A miller said they were not fit for timber. Useless. Somewhere in the death of a tree is the truth of its strength.” The installation foregrounded Gates’s preservationist determination to ensure that the memory of Malaga Island cannot be erased from historical dialogues again.
Gates’s belief in the power of found objects, buildings, and communities allows a constant expansion in his work, as he explores different ideas and closely examines materials for potential new found meanings. In searching for perfection he became invested in the language of practice, ultimately finding joy in revitalizing everyday materials to present viewers with difficult questions, ranging from the complexities of the social and political world to the black experience. Rather than claim to supply answers, Gates looks to engage the public in a conversation, providing a starting point for discussions that need to occur for major change to happen. In a world in which everything is processed very quickly, Gates slows things down, challenging societal barriers while helping his community—a community so often excluded in so many ways—to benefit.
1See Lilly Wei, “Theaster Gates,” Art in America, December 2011. Available online at www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazines/theaster-gates/ (accessed August 27, 2019).
2See the Milwaukee Art Museum’s website for To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave the Potter, online at https://mam.org/exhibitions/details/theasterGates.php (accessed August 27, 2019).
3Theaster Gates, e-mail conversation with the author, July 7, 2019.
5Gates, in Tim Marlow, interview with Theaster Gates (London: White Cube, 2012). Video available online at https://whitecube.com/channel/channel/theaster_gates_in_the_studio_2012 (accessed September 21, 2019).
9Maine State Museum, “The History.”
10Gates, e-mail conversation with the author.
11Richard Dyer, White (London and New York: Routledge, 1997, reprint ed. 2017), pp. 45–46.