Do you know who Theaster Gates is? Do you know what he is doing? Here is a link to a 2007 interview on "Bad at Sports". By the way it is a podcast worth following while you are working in your studio or driving down the road or just enjoying a relaxing beverage after a long day.
On to Theaster. Last Spring, March 25-27, 2010 there was a "convening" at the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission. It was called "At The Crossroads: Community Arts & Development Convening". And it was there that I first heard of and heard what Theaster Gates had to say and to see what he was doing. The work he shared was a work realized at the Milwaukee Art Museum and a collaboration with Dave the Potter. Here is a video of his lecture about "Speculate Darkly".
Dave the Potter was a slave potter and he is known by a few names, but mainly he is known because he was literate and he left poems and thoughts etched into the vessels he made in the 1800s. In the above lecture, Theaster speaks to his own education in ceramics (by the way, he also earned degrees in Urban Planning and Religious Studies) he indicates the history of American Ceramics was filled with White Californians and Asian History. He did not see himself in this history, but he knew these figures wanted to make him a better potter. He was motivated to seek out a history in clay, a purpose with the material he could relate to. This is how he met Dave. The fact that Theaster had to FIND Dave is one of those omissions from history which is disappointing if not surprising. It's not surprising we need to thoroughly reexamine academia and not from a corporate viewpoint, ah but another day.
Still, I have to indulge right now and say, Ron Dale at the University of Mississippi did present an inclusive history of ceramics and Dave the Potter was among the artists presented. I don't know whether or not that was because of the time I found myself in school, or because Ron Dale is an inclusive thoughtful human or because I went to school in Mississippi and there was such a focus on that campus to not repeat the errors of the past. And yes, that history is certainly a worm hole we could go down, but let's just be grateful there was a combination of things at work which did not exclude a variety of makers from the presentation of art history in my education.
But, back to Theaster and the work in Milwaukee. The way he told the tale in St. Louis was that the museum was looking at their statistics and noticed a lack of contrast in their patronage. To say the least it was sorely lacking in the area of black patronage. They knew of Theaster's work. They knew he was part of the 2010 Whitney Biennial, knew he was eloquent and charismatic, they knew he could engage the audience they were missing.
Theaster agreed to be the Milwaukee Art Museum's Bridge. He proposed a radical idea: the reason few of color came to the museum was that there was little of color to view at the museum. So he put together and exhibition of work created in conversation with Dave the Slave Potter. Theaster also put together a choir of over 300 people from Chicago and Milwaukee to traverse the museum floor singing old spirituals, and singing "Bowls, Jar, Teapots. Buy my wares."
It is a powerful work. A powerful body of work.
He has also gone into abandoned Chicago neighborhoods and created site specific works which generate community dialogue. He has said, I'm sick of the self-aggrandizing conversations in ceramics (okay, I'm paraphrasing here and infusing with my own luggage) and want to find other connections between the two cultures prominent in his ceramic experience. Potters are forever on about function and so he combined soul food with asian cuisine and opened up a neighborhood restaurant with German Festhalle seating, presented the food in vessels he made and invited the whole neighborhood in to eat and TALK. Communities of race who rarely sit down and chat, who rarely humanize each other.
This June he was at the Museum of Contemporary Craft whitewashing previous performances as part of the "Gestures of Resistance" a focus on contemporary craftactions: work that deploys craft to agitate for change through direct political statements, public interventions, or dialogical, community-specific projects.
I have wanted to write about Theaster's work since I heard him speak last March. I was so excited, almost to a manic state, about what he was doing. I wanted everyone in ceramics to see what it was that he was doing. The ceramics world spends so much time pondering its bellybutton it fails to see the bigger picture of potential. Theaster saw the brick wall, the same brick wall we all see and then, rather than beat his head against it, he looked around for other connections, which he calls COLLISIONS. I think they are collisions because, like any great art, his works might not give us answers, but THANK THE LORD he is opening up new questions and bringing folks together in the process! Admittedly, I have a tendency to want art to change the world and I don't know if I'll ever be able to let go of that altogether and don't think I should have to, but don't let my personal slant turn you away from really examining what Theaster is doing. He is expanding the dialogue of ceramics because he abandoned the dialogue of ceramics. Yes! I vote yes! I want more of that!