Review: Theaster Gates at Tate Liverpool

Words and Pictures by Col O’Kell

In 2018, daunted by having to fill the cavernous spaces of Paris’ Palais de Tokyo as part of his latest commission, Theaster Gates retreated to the anonymity of Maine on the north-eastern coast of the United States for some much needed rest and relaxation.

While enjoying the privilege of an afternoon pleasure-boat cruise and en route to sample Maine’s legendary lobster rolls, Gates and his friends passed by the uninhabited Malaga Island; following a serendipitous meeting with some local social historians the full compelling story of this racial microcosm was uncovered and the seeds of Gates’ latest monumental dialogue on race and identity were sewn.

From the 1860s onwards, a thriving fishing community of mixed racial heritage had lived on Malaga Island with archived newspaper reports on the school system attesting to the success and harmony of the society. However, despite the apparent benign tranquillity, the community became demonised primarily due to the prevailing prejudice against mixed race relationships, and in 1912, via a decree from the Governor, the community was forcibly removed from the island. Its inhabitants were left without any rehousing support, with some interred into the horrifyingly named “Maine School for the Feeble Minded”. Virtually all trace of the harmonious community was scrubbed out to the extent that houses were torn down and the dead exhumed and transferred to anonymous communal graves.

It is this haunting tale of the inhabitants of Malaga Island that Theaster Gates has used as the departure point for his powerful and thought provoking exhibition Amalgam, currently on show at Tate Liverpool following its debut with fellow collaborators Palais de Tokyo.

Its title in part refers to the original sculptures on show, where Gates creates hybrid forms via the juxtaposition of incongruous elements creating majestic moments of visual poetry. As well as these sculptural Amalgams, the show, which spans the entirety of Tate Liverpool’s fourth floor, features film, dance and music to create a series of room-sized installations where elements speak to each other and explore the interweaving topics of race, identity, territory and the malleability of history.

The first of these room-sized installations (Alter, 2019) features a giant slate clad prism; a cluster of modernist pastiche wall reliefs and the first of Gates’ Amalgams: a gaudy rotating neon ‘Malaga’ sign perched on top of slate fragments, symbolising the homes and lives destroyed in Malaga Island’s never realised redevelopment.

In addition to this, one wall is dominated by a three meter by five meter slate board featuring a hand written chalk timeline interweaving the history of racial prejudice in the United States with the history of Malaga Island and also the history of the roles played in racial subjugation by the two host regions of the show – Paris/France and Liverpool.

The inclusion of factual references so close to home forces one to acknowledge that the history of racial inequality is not exclusively attributable to far off regions and that the historical communities that many of us identify with were complicit – a point made all the more chilling by the fact that the sites of the events referred to in Liverpool’s docks are in sight as you move around the exhibition.

As you gaze with incredulity at the inhumanity of the logic and language of prejudice, you are struck by the connection with the school room that chalk on slate incites; a chilling reminder that these obscenities were once part of a formalised taught and learnt doctrine.

Theaster Gates, Alter 2019 – Detail

Hailing from the South Side of Chicago where he still lives and works, pioneer and polymath Theaster Gates (b.1973) is an artist who zealously resists the limitations of categorisation. Originally a potter, currently his practice is focused upon sculpture, performance and space theory and land development. A veracious collaborator, Gates’ consistently unites teams of multi-skilled individuals to help realise his artistic goals; he has developed multiple works with cutting edge choreographer Kyle Abraham and his musical collective The Black Monks.

Via his Rebuild Foundation, he has been the driving force behind an initiative to re-circulate art world capital to restore and re-imagine scores of Chicago’s abandoned buildings to artistic ends. A recipient of the Legion d’Honneur amongst other accolades, through his practice and affiliations with Colby College Maine, the University of Chicago and the Getty Research Institute he continues to create ground breaking work centred on race and identity.

The centre-piece of the exhibition is the video installation Dance of Malaga (2018), a stunning audio visual epitaph to the island’s persecuted inhabitants. Simultaneously beautiful, shocking and enraging the hypnotic cinematic collage is guaranteed to incite a visceral response. The sanctity of the bond between people and the physical matter of the land they inhabit is exemplified as we see human limbs intertwined with the heartwood of the islands trees. The stirring cinematography is showcased via a flawless floor to ceiling high definition display and plays out to the backdrop of an evocative score from The Black Monks, leaving you haunted with a poignant sense of the loss and longing.

The remainder of the exhibition features further examples of Gates’ beguiling hybrid sculptural forms, alongside found objects all addressing issues surrounding racial identity grounded in the history of Malaga Island. As you pore over recovered fragments and original artefacts which inter-splice natural forms, modern materials and ancient motifs you are forced to address questions on the principles of racial identity and its interpretations, with one bold neon sign stating: “In the end nothing is pure”.  The final multifaceted installation features a forest of rejected wooden stakes, many crowned with castings of traditional masks, intended in part as an indictment to those who demonise racial mixing once their exploitation of it has been exhausted.

In a project strewn with innovative associations, it is a masterstroke for Tate Liverpool to bring Gates’ first UK solo exhibition to the North West and is the perfect partner piece to their dazzling Keith Haring summer blockbuster. This must-see exhibition uses the forgotten story of a far away island to create a poignant dialogue on the past, present and future of notions of cultural purity – a dialogue which is as relevant today as it has ever been.

Theaster Gates, Alter 2019 – Detail

Words, Col O’Kell