Theaster Gates enjoys working with his hands. His two new London exhibits are about clay, and one of them includes a video of him singing enthusiastically while throwing a pot. So it’s a pity we won’t be meeting one-on-one, but rather through laptop. The artist made a last-minute decision to remain at home in Chicago while the performances were put on, directing everything through Zoom. (He arrived in the UK this week and will deliver a lecture with potter Magdalene Odundo on Thursday.)
“I’m very conscious of my health, as well as the reality of these contagious times,” he says. “All I wanted to do was give myself time to get in the best shape possible so that my body would be as resistant as possible.” Even though the globe is expanding, I want to go at a slower pace.”
Gates is speaking from his library – “the brain!” – which, in addition to books, contains shelves of records and magazines, turntables, and vintage speakers that any hi-fi enthusiast would die for, through which he is currently listening to Etta James, early Miles Davis, and the house music that rocked, or rather jacked, his city when he was a teenager. (“House music is always on my mind,” he confesses.) He spent much of lockdown with his band, the Black Monks, in the library, where they created a bubble.
He explains, “We were writing new music.” “I was making pots, and my guys would come over to get out of the house every now and then.” I consider myself very lucky to have had the opportunity to spend time with my closest friends on a daily basis.”
Other advantages included the fact that Gates did not have to be a nonstop superstar artist. “I didn’t have to attend 20 dinners or conduct a slew of interviews. I felt like a regular person who had something extraordinary happen to him once or twice a year, like going to a funeral or a wedding.” “Every week I was in a different country” before Covid, he adds.
Gates’ work, which includes everything from ceramics to sculpture to music, goes well beyond gallery walls, thanks to his can-do attitude, desire to think large, and strong sense of social duty. His most ambitious project, the Dorchester Projects, saw him purchase abandoned buildings for as low as $1 and renovate them into cultural centers, libraries, artists studios, and mixed-income housing, including the Stony Island Bank on Chicago’s South Side.
During the early stages of the epidemic, when masks were in limited supply in Chicago, he teamed up with the fashion company Citizens of Humanity to manufacture and distribute thousands of face masks. Stony Island was turned into a food bank, and he continued to support local artists.
“Even though we couldn’t be as close to each other,” he adds, “there was a deep acknowledgement that people continued to matter.” “Covid taught me to be more cautious in my dealings, but I still felt present, touched, and able to share the love.”
Working with clay allows him to reconnect to his initial source of inspiration. Gates spent his summer vacations as a kid, the youngest of nine children and the only male, in Mississippi with his family, where he loved to dig in the dirt: “You could just dig anywhere and get this beautiful bright orange sticky mud and make things.” He went to Iowa State University to study urban planning and ceramics, then spent a year in Tokoname, Japan, learning from the great potters there. His video at the Whitechapel contains some footage from about the same period, showing Gates as a young student declaring his desire to create an art film about clay, which he has now realized.
Ceramics were formerly seen to be the products of craft; now, critics consider them as art, but Gates’ newfound interest in clay sprang from a desire to work with something simple while incarcerated. “I think that clay feels perverse because it is lowly in this moment where everything is kind of bombastic and plastic and prefabricated,” he adds.
His shows include everything from simple “sake bowls, tea cups, and bottles” at the White Cube to a large white vessel inspired by Greek-American ceramicist Peter Voulkos at the Whitechapel, as well as works by other artists, such as a jug by David Drake, AKA Dave the Potter, who was born a slave in South Carolina in 1800 and whose pots, simply glazed and unadorned apart from his signature and sometimes lines of poetry, now sell for $1 million at auction. The ceramics, carefully arranged beside Gates’ own work, convey tales of global commerce and racial subjugation, as well as Black spirituality and joy.
Gates will be the first artist to create the Serpentine Pavilion, which will be located in London’s Kensington Gardens for the whole summer. Architects are usually the only ones who get this honor. “If I’m going to be called the first artist, I want the pavilion to have an artistic feel to it,” he adds. “I don’t want it to just be a study of architectural principles or tectonic theory,” she says. I want to represent the artist’s touch and originality, as well as the significance of looking at things and discovering new things.”
Gates is also working on a presidential library for Barack Obama, which will house the 44th president’s documents. “I want to be involved in all aspects of culture-making, society-building, and nation-building, so I consider myself extremely fortunate to have a president in Barack Obama, whom I still refer to as my president. Anything he and Michelle ask of me, I’m sure I’ll be willing to do.” Is he close to the Obamas? “That would be a stretch,” he jokes, “but I respect him and I believe they respect me.”
Gates views himself as a keeper of African-American culture as well. He has collected and maintained a variety of significant things, ranging from the happy (the pioneering house DJ Frankie Knuckles’ record collection) to the sad (the pioneering house DJ Frankie Knuckles’ record collection). A gazebo sits on the grounds of his building, the Stony Island Arts Bank. Someone sitting in it seven years ago phoned the police to report a black man waving a “probably fake” gun at pedestrians when it was at a park in Cleveland, Ohio. Tamir Rice, 12, was shot and killed by police when they got on the scene.
“We use the gazebo all the time for public activations and live music, and it’ll stay there until [Tamir’s mother] Samaria Rice finds it a permanent home.” It reminds me of how crucial events like the Serpentine Pavilion – as well as monument and site construction – are, and how creatives and artists must practice so that when tragedies like Tamir’s murder occur, we will be prepared.”
According to Gates, he is very conscious of his privileged position as an artist. “My mom made doilies and Christmas wreaths,” he said, despite the fact that no one else in his family was creative. She was a clever lady. My father could also repair a pinball machine, a refrigerator motor, and a vehicle engine.
He worked as a mechanic, then as an entrepreneur, and finally as a roofer. So, although my expertise is probably no better than my parents’, it has given me access to one of the world’s most privileged professions. Those are the times when I realize that access is more important than ability. “I love what you do; can you do it here?” says someone.
Gates believes that this is something that everyone, regardless of color, should be undertaking. “White businesses aren’t the only ones that bear blame. I believe that everyone has a duty to everyone else.
Designers and artists of color should have a dedication to black artists, but I believe we should all have a commitment to the oppressed. We should all be providing chances for those who deserve them, not simply for people who are similar to us.”
Gates’ art combines history with beauty and a burning social conscience, like in his Civil Tapestry series, which transformed the sort of fire hoses used against civil rights protestors in the 1960s into alluring abstract sculptures. However, there is something in his art that just speaks to a joy of being in the company of other people, whether they are grieving, dancing, working, or in peaceful contemplation.
A chair and a big pot stand on a brightly patterned rug, stolen from the offices of Johnson, publishers of Black-interest magazines Jet and Ebony, and filthy from years of meetings and parties, are the final pieces you see before leaving the Whitechapel.
“In order for my art to be its best self,” Gates adds, “it needs people.” “The spaces must be activated, and I require assistance.” When I create things, I’m not just thinking about myself; I’m also thinking about the people around me.”