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Theaster Gates and the Art of Building Altars to the Everyday

Theaster Gates speaking at Emory. Image courtesy Floyd Hall.
Theaster Gates speaking at Emory. Image courtesy Floyd Hall.
Theaster Gates speaking at Emory. Image courtesy Floyd Hall.
Theaster Gates speaking at Emory. Image courtesy Floyd Hall.

Theaster Gates warmed up to the podium, starting his talk in hushed tones and looking a tad weary, removing and reapplying his new glasses, wiping his face — a gesture he would repeat a few times throughout the evening.

In front of a diverse audience of mostly Emory students, civic professionals and members of Atlanta’s arts and culture community, Gates spoke with a fearless authenticity. His tone was one usually reserved for artists and scholars when discussing often-uncomfortable matters of race and space. Gates opened with a few general questions around blackness — they hung in the air for effect. “What do we do with these Negroes now that they’re not slaves anymore?” he asked. Gates then proceeded to offer more pressing questions as he unpacked what at times resembled more of a performance than a lecture: He yelled, he sang, he joked, he preached and he even danced a bit.

Gates has spent the better part of the last decade working as an artist who corrals culture via the sometimes overlooked people, objects and ideas that enter his orbit, and has exhibited or performed at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the Whitney Biennial, the Milwaukee Art Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, among others. Gates worked for the Chicago Transit Authority early in his career as an art planner, and has continued to collaborate with CTA as his artistic practice has expanded. Gates is also the founder of the nonprofit Rebuild Foundation and currently holds a faculty position as a professor in the department of visual arts at the University of Chicago.

Before a packed house at Emory University’s Schwartz Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, February 3, Gates presented “Black Spaces” as part of the aforementioned institution’s Goodrich C. White Lecture series. Armed with a handful of slides, Gates spent an hour or so sharing thoughts that touched on the convergence of art, race and preservation in the context of communities of color, so-called “black spaces.” It was a talk Gates has no doubt given countless times before in some form, but nevertheless addressed a topic that resonates with Atlanta’s thinkers and doers.

That Emory University would host Gates seemed a bit ironic, given that it shuttered its department of visual arts a few years ago. So perhaps it was not so much that Theaster Gates “the Artist” was being welcomed to share his insight in this moment inasmuch as it was Theaster Gates “the Urbanist” on display. Yet, judging from the nodding heads and on-cue laughter throughout the evening, it was apparent that one cannot exist without the other, and that Gates’ multiple labels give him a wide working vocabulary that broadens his appeal into something universal.

The images on the slides presented in “Black Spaces,” including several of the Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank, served as anchor points for Gates to deviate from and come back to, in an improvisation reminiscent of jazz, while combining several wandering streams of thought that touched on the rituals of black violence versus deer hunting, ice fishing and hardware stores in Porto, Portugal.

Nearly 30 minutes into the lecture, Gates began to crystalize the crux of his current mission: the archival of the everyday experiences and remnants of black spaces, and building “altars” to these notions to allow for the accrual of cultural value. He acknowledged the challenge to building these altars, however, lies in grappling with and seeing value in black spaces, both by those within and outside of them.

Indeed Gates’ particular way of building altars, primarily in Chicago and in other areas in the Midwest, calls into question whether his ideas and vision are transferrable — to Atlanta or elsewhere — if he isn’t involved in the process. Gates himself is the driving force. With degrees in art, urban planning and religious studies, Gates is uniquely positioned to appeal to the heart, mind or balance sheet of any listener to gain them as an ally; he’s fluent in the right cultural and institutional languages to attract the right people to his vision.

Which Atlanta artists exhibit a similar commitment to the city’s black spaces, while also possessing a similar fluency in the languages of real estate, public policy, transit and business? Furthermore, which artists are innovative enough to transform neighborhoods and forge community in ways that look, feel and sound as if they’re of Atlanta, rather than superficial “Atlantafied” versions of a borrowed New York, Los Angeles or Paris ethos? This remains to be seen.

The Q&A portion of the lecture allowed Gates to riff on even more topics: the Flint, Michigan, water crisis; Atlanta as a reimagined black space — with institutions like Emory, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University being more thoughtful when it comes to the plight of poor black people; systematic generational challenges to preserving black spaces; and operational knowledge of the political and capital systems that drive Gates’ brand of transformation.

By the end of “Black Spaces” it was clear that what Gates said at the beginning of his lecture was true: “I’m the framer of things … and he who owns the frame, owns the thing.” Theaster Gates is indeed the master framer of his world, and all of the disparate ideas in that world blend perfectly because he is the one constant that binds them together. As the crowd filed out into an unseasonably mild February night, this was also clear: There’s only one Theaster Gates.

That then, begs the question: If Theaster Gates, a Chicago native, has taken on the responsibility of transforming the city that shaped him, who then, will spring forth from Atlanta to transform its black spaces?

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