Words Bomi Odufunade Photography Lloyd DeGrane (courtesy: University of Chicago)
At the recent 13th edition of prestigious art festival dOCUMENTA in Kassel, Germany, Theaster Gates transformed a dilapidated old building into a communal area offering food, performances and talks. The project, 12 Ballads For Huguenot House (2012), won rave reviews. It was typical of Gates' works, which take many forms (including sculpture, installation and performance) and encompasses a strong sense of social and political narrative, often addressing African-American history.
The last few years have seen Gates attract international critical acclaim. In 2011 he had three solo shows in Chicago, LA and Seattle, and signed with London gallery White Cube, which is currently hosting his solo exhibition My Labor Is My Protest. Earlier this year he made the cover of this year’s January/February issue of Art Review. He is also the inaugural director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago and the recipient of the Gwendolyn Knight and Jacob Lawrence 2011-2012 Fellowship for African-American artists.
In My Labor Is My Protest, Gates continues his appraisal and examination of civil rights in America. For In The Event Of A Race Riot (2011 onwards), Gates presents a series of rolled-up fire hoses, while in Raising Goliath (2012) a classic red fire-truck is suspended from the ceiling, balanced with a huge metal case housing hundreds of leather-bound copies of Jet and Ebony magazines, which Gates describes "as a way to hoist the history of the Civil Rights out of view, making it both weightless and invisible". The exhibition also features a library of books and magazines on history of black American culture from the archive of Johnson Publishing Company, the Chicago-based publishers of Ebony. Gates and The Black Monks of Mississippi, a monastic ensemble of musicians and vocalists he formed in late 2008, are set to perform twice during the exhibition and once at London's iconic Ronnie Scott's jazz club on October 10, for which tickets have already sold out.
Theaster Gates, Raising Goliath, 2012,1967 Ford fire truck, magazines, tar bucket, mop, steel and wire, Dimensions variable
Photo: Ben Westoby Courtesy White Cube
So is he an artist, cultural planner, social practitioner, urban planner or even community organiser? “An artist,” confirms Gates. “I feel fortunate that I did not go to school for art because I did not understand that art would be a career. It was something that I just felt passionate about… by looking at it and by reading about it. Then I had this job, which was the thing I had a long career ambition for. I thought I would be an urban planner or a great thinker.”
It is a rare occurrence to find an artist with Masters degrees in Fine Arts And Urban Planning (University of Cape Town) and Urban Planning, Ceramics And Religious Studies(Iowa State University).“When I studied religion it was kind of a sincere search for God; to get an understanding for him," says Gates. "After studying it I no longer had a need for it as a vocation. This belief needed to be dispersed into the daily activity of my life. Religion formed another ingredient for my full artistic practice… it became a thickening agent or seasoning salt.
“Clay was [also] part of my student practice. I started making pots in college, it was really like enriching the soul, I was becoming a better human; it was a humanities material with no means to an end. I wanted to be a potter… and make the most beautiful pots.” An avid fan of British potters Hans Coper, David Leach and Julian Stair, Gates' other influences include Japanese-American ceramic sculptor Akio Takamori and Abstract Expressionist ceramist Peter Voulkos.
After graduating, Gates juggled his work as an urban planner alongside developing his own artistic practice. “Then I lost my studio,” he says, “I couldn’t afford clay anymore.” Instead of quitting, he began to explore new avenues. “What I found were all these things that I had been thinking about and writing about in my journals... and I realised that clay didn’t always allow me this artistic freedom. So in the absence of the material I was liberated.”
For his recent exhibition The Listening Room at the Seattle Art Museum, Gates installed a collection of vinyl albums from the now-closed Dr Wax record store in Chicago, once renowned for showcasing music by black recording artists; a DJ booth made out of an old church pew; and a record player. Against this backdrop, the artist invited the audience to listen to the sounds of Martin Luther King Jr, James Brown and the Isaac Brothers while simultaneously offering up a piece of work examining the history of the Civil Rights movement.
(images above) Theaster Gates, The Listening Room, 2011 -12, Installation View, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle WA
Courtesy Kavi Gupta CHICAGO | BERLIN, Photo: Robert Wade
Nevertheless, Gates continues to draw on his varied university studies. He has an ongoing practise of rebuilding abandoned buildings in and around Chicago, where he was born in 1973. This dates back to where he met curator Francesco Bonami while exhibiting Temple Exercises, a series of performances at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in 2009. "I didn’t know what I was going to show him," remembers Gates. "I had just bought my first abandoned building, which was next door… adjacent to my house. We had gutted it. I had just got this glass lantern slide archive, so I just turned the projection on, one slide, on the second floor and the rest of the house was just a frame… almost skeletal.”
Gates' exhibition To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates And Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum also marked a return to ceramics. “I wanted to go back and show how clay could be contemporary but also I wanted to talk about Dave the Potter,” explains Gates. The show was a fitting tribute to the influential African-American potter – also known as David Drake – a former slave from South Carolina who produced stoneware pottery decorated with poetic couplets in the 1820s to the 1860s. As well as re-establishing Drake's legacy within pottery, Gates reimagined his work: conceiving a new series of ceramic works, engaging a gospel choir to sing songs he had composed in response to the poetry found on Drake’s pots, and creating a captivating sound piece with musicians from Milwaukee and Chicago.
My Labor Is My Protest is at the White Cube, London, until November 11.
Theaster Gates in conversation with Tim Marlow, White Cube Bermondsey, Monday 8 October 2012, 6.30pm. Reservation essential. Numbers are limited.