Artists on Black History: “Resistance creates new style”

Change needs space, says the artist Theaster Gates. A conversation about Soundarchive in Chicago and the Black Madonna from Altötting.

Theaster Gates is standing in front of a building, wearing a long black coat and a burgundy shirt

Theaster Gates is an artist, urban planner and musician. He teaches in Chicago Photo: Lyndon French

taz: Mr. Gates, your current exhibition at the Luma in Arles is entitled “Min / Mon”, two Japanese terms that stand for “man” and “gate”. Why this title?

born 1973 in Chicago, is an urban planner, artist, lead singer of his band Black Monks and professor at the University of Chicago. He is involved in community architecture projects in neighborhoods in the city that are at risk of demolition, and he is building music and image archives. His artistic works deal with urban planning, religious space or crafts and conceptually address the history of Black America. Theaster Gates is currently exhibiting at the Venice Architecture Biennale and at the Luma in Arles, southern France.

Theater Gates: In recent years I’ve started to see Japan as a kind of second home. It’s a place where my artistic imagination is very different than in the United States or Europe. The space I designed for this exhibition is very influenced by Japanese philosophy, with deliberately simple, recycled materials. “Mon” is my last name “Gates”. So it’s about people entering a metaphysical space and what happens when they do so.

A spatial installation entitled “Temple” is the central work in your exhibition. In it you show part of your personal vinyl archive, a DJ booth and a bar with sake from Tokoname in Japan, where you studied pottery. What does this place mean to you?

I wanted to create an environment for quiet, spiritual encounters, with great music. This experience in a very strict, temple-like environment is intended to encourage you to develop your own rituals and meditate with the music.

What does your record archive brought back from Chicago include?

Japanese music, a collection of Hawaiian folk songs, some speeches, some operas too. However, the collection is mainly BlackMusic. I would say two thirds of the collection is formerly R&B, folk, gospel and jazz.

You also combine Japanese traditions with Afro-American history in your art. You use the term “Afro-Mingei” for this. What does “Afro-Mingei” mean exactly?

In a way, Afro-Mingei is an attempt to say that despite external influences, our language, our way of dressing, our hairstyles, our traditions matter. In Japan, as in Afro-America, there is the same attempt to resist a globally unifying dominant culture. And this resistance creates a new style of its own. So “Afro-Mingei” is what happens when you expose a person who was raised in Black culture in America to new philosophies, new skills.

You work with things that embody history. As in 2012 in your installation “12 Ballads for Huguenot House” for the documenta 13. Back then you hinted at a restoration of the Kassel Hotel in an abandoned hotel in Kassel using original materials from a demolished house from the South Side in Chicago. Concerts with you and your band Black Monks also took place there, music by the Chicago flutist Nicole Mitchell ran from the tape.

That’s how I grew up. Whenever we needed a new bathtub for the apartment, my father would go to the resale market and get an old bathtub and reuse it. So when you save things because you have very little money. For me, this kind of survival was something that had a lot to do with the reality of African American life. But also the decision to use these things, perfecting the salvaged material and trying to make it his highest self. Again, this is a very Japanese attitude and also part of ceramic art.

Where does your interest in Japanese ceramics come from?

I studied urban planning and had to take an art course for it. That’s how I got into pottery. I was really bad at it at first, but after the third course it was clear that I didn’t want to stop. I then studied religious studies, ceramics and sculpture as well before being accepted for a year in Tokoname to study pottery. Since then I’ve been there regularly.

Another of your series of works is entitled “Black Madonna”, which was first shown in 2018 at the Kunstmuseum Basel. It is based, among other things, on the cult of the late medieval figure of a “Black Madonna” in Altötting in Upper Bavaria. Your sculpture in Basel, based on the Altötting Madonna, was black, now you show a white Madonna. Why?

The Madonna in Basel was made from tar, from the hollow form of this white Madonna on display. This Madonna, modeled on a key ring of the Altötting Madonna figure, is the original positive. I am asking the question whether the Madonna has a supposed race, whether she is above it, or whether she did not already exist before our construct of a race even existed.

By collecting archives, such as the record archives of Frankie Knuckles, the “Godfather of House,” you preserve Black history and create public spaces of remembrance. Do you think that has something to do with the idea of ​​healing, which is currently so virulent in architecture and art?

Yes absolutely. We were nine children at home. So if my mother had to clean up after all of us, she would have been tired all the time. So the rule was that you should leave a place better than you found it. I think my city projects in Chicago have a lot to do with that. I try to make the rooms better than I found them. And then I think, deep down, I’m the archetype of the worker. I like my job more than anything. So when I create a space, it’s absolutely about healing.

You founded the Rebuild Foundation in Chicago. This non-profit organization rehabilitates run-down homes and creates affordable housing in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side. You initiated the Stony Island Arts Bank, with a library and spaces for concerts, also the Black Cinema House and the Dorchester Projects, two houses you acquired that make their archival collections accessible, including the 8,000 discs that You at the closure of Dr. acquired Wax Records. How do you finance your projects?

I use what I earn in the art world to do something in my community. But I would say that 80 percent of what I do I do with the help of others, the city of Chicago, the state, and individuals and foundations around our country. I think this works because I’m willing to spend all my money and invest the energy and resources it takes.

What kind of audience do you actually meet with your community projects in Chicago?

The projects are located in the South Side, which is 99 percent black. About 400 people come to our concerts, parties and dinners who are interested in the music, but there are also retired teachers who are interested in our libraries or academics who want to learn more about the black image for science. Whole families come with children, who learn from us how much great music, books and art there is by black people, which is not shown in the usual school books and media.

The musician and professor George Lewis, also from Chicago, speaks of what he believes is a necessary decolonization of European institutions. What is your perspective on Europe?

I think it is becoming clear that the institutions need to do more to involve more people. And while being black may be sexy right now, museums should be places where all people feel represented. I am aware that Black artists are selling well on the art market right now. I benefit from that too, but in the end it’s just capitalism, basically another form of colonial thinking.

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