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Theaster Gates is explaining why innate talent should never be stifled. “You shake what your mama gave you,” says Chicago’s most famous contemporary artist, with an endearing smile and swagger.
Gates, now 41, has indeed been flaunting his natural aptitude of late. In January, he won the Artes Mundi 6 contemporary art award for his 2014 installation, “A Complicated Relationship Between Heaven and Earth, or When We Believe” at the National Museum Cardiff (he shared the £40,000 prize with the nine other finalists). Later this year, he will present his first major public piece in the UK in Bristol, courtesy of Situations, a public art organisation.
Meanwhile, his installation on display in All the World’s Futures, the central show at this year’s Venice Biennale, has won plaudits. “Gone are the Days of Shelter and Martyr” (2014) comprises a bronze church bell, a wall of slate roof tiles and a crumbling statue of a saint, items salvaged from the demolished Church of St Laurence in Chicago. An eloquent video was filmed among the wreckage and rubble of the church interior with his gospel ensemble, the Black Monks of Mississippi.
Meeting at White Cube Bermondsey, where his latest London exhibition is under way, he seems in turn ruminative, coltish and supremely self-possessed. The loose thematic framework of the show, entitled Freedom of Assembly, gives Gates carte blanche to explore the broad idea of assembly, from notions of individual freedom to modernist techniques such as assemblage, and invoking the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
“If you take freedom of assembly, one part, it’s talking about the freedom to congregate and occupy space together. If we were to use the phrase metaphorically, it follows that as an artist I have the right to form associations independent of the market or other governance,” he declares.
References to labour, race and class division abound in Gates’s work: an earlier series of tapestries and framed wall boxes made from decommissioned fire hoses are a nod to the equipment police used to disperse civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963.
He explains how this new show shifts its focus to the elemental acts of making, doing, assembling (a piece comprising items culled from a defunct Chicago hardware store stands out). The store was located in Chicago’s South Side, the artist’s own neighbourhood, which he has transformed in the past nine years through a series of high-profile urban rebuilding initiatives called Dorchester Projects.
In 2006, Gates made his home in a former confectionery store on South Dorchester Avenue in the heart of Greater Grand Crossing, one of the city’s most deprived areas. Dubbed the Listening House, it accommodates 8,000 records from the closed Dr Wax store. In 2009 he purchased the neighbouring building, which became known as the Archive House, home to 14,000 books from the former Prairie Avenue Bookshop. Reconstructed using discarded resources from across the city, it fulfils his Rebuild Foundation’s remit of regeneration, “individual empowerment and community engagement”.
A third building across the street, the Black Cinema House (since relocated to nearby South Kimbark Avenue) was turned into a site for after-school video workshops and soul-food dinners in 2012. The spruced-up property included dark redwood around the doors and windows rescued from an old water tower, and slate-green walls made of chalkboards from Crispus Attucks elementary school, named after an African-American slave who was the first casualty of the revolutionary war.
The Rebuild Foundation has also converted a complex of 32 neglected Chicago Housing Authority apartments in the district into housing for artists and community members.
Another of Gates’s hugely ambitious ventures is the revamped Stony Island Arts Bank, due to open in October at the same time as the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. The city council sold the site to Gates for $1 on condition that he refurbishes the derelict neoclassical landmark, which will become a cultural and communal hub.
“It will be the permanent home of the Johnson library and periodicals [the Chicago publishing company that produced Ebony and Jet magazines]. The black archive will be a significant part of my work,” says Gates.
True to the artist’s affinity for repurposed objects, materials move in and out of Dorchester Projects, feeding the activities of the 60-strong team in both a commercial and creative sense. Salvaged remnants become works of art, sold in turn to bankroll the South Side renovations. Detritus from 6901 South Dorchester Avenue (the original Black Cinema House) was shipped to Kassel, in Germany, and used to repair a historic building known as the Huguenot House for the Documenta13 quinquennial art exhibition in 2012, uniting the two derelict buildings as part of a clever architectural and artistic conceit.
So what is Gates? An artist, activist, facilitator, project manager, urban planner or a “Chicago institution”? Some commentators disapprove of Gates’s mixed mission, which he himself describes as “a social practice installation artist”. Art blogger Rodrigo Cañete argues that the collectors who have elevated Gates into a darling of the art world are seduced by the “moral” dimension of the artist’s approach rather than its aesthetic value. “It is obvious that the appeal that he has for rich New Yorkers lies in that conflation of artistic and community philanthropy,” Cañete says.
One of the best things about Gates, though, is how candidly he acknowledges dipping in and out of different models and systems — from the art market to urban rebirth — to achieve his aims. He does not flinch when I ask about distorting these demarcations.
“I feel like I’m presenting big ideas in the world and I have to look for ways to fund that, so the philanthropic community, and private individuals, have been very important,” he says. “I use my own money to demonstrate that black people, when they’re put in beautiful environments, respect beauty.
“There are people who are much more politically active, culturally active, socially active, than myself. I don’t call myself those things but I do understand what it means to be an active citizen, a human involved in the stakes of his or her country, a neighbour who cares about the affairs of their block. And I happen to bring the fact that I’m an artist to all of those things.”
His devotion to his city has been unswerving. Gates was brought up, one of nine siblings, on the city’s West Side, and apart from stints abroad in the late 1990s in Japan (a residency in Tokoname) and South Africa, he has remained in the city fold. At the turn of the century, he was a bow-tied employee of the Chicago Transit Authority, overseeing public art on the subways.
The turning point towards becoming a full-time artist came in 2007 when he presented the pottery he then made as the work of Shoji Yamaguchi, a ceramicist who had left Hiroshima for Mississippi and married May, a black civil rights activist. Yamaguchi was fictional, but the ruse opened doors. “Yamaguchi convinced me that I could create any platform I needed to in order to survive as an artist, to help people understand the world in new ways.”
There are hazards in positioning yourself as a former outsider now on the inside track, however.
“I was an outsider because institutions would not let me inside . . . I’m kind of on the inside but inside of what? Now that I’m represented by White Cube, that becomes its own kind of marginality. There is a certain kind of curator I’ll never work with. The most important thing for me is that one considers context, always. So when I make this show at White Cube, I know that I’m making a show at White Cube.”
But the essence of Gates is manifest in stories of his 80-year-old father, a roofer. A series of large-scale monochrome compositions at White Cube, a blend of rubber and tar applied to wood panels, are the Gates family incarnate.
“If we were to think about roofing as a labour, to have discipline, criticality, technique, style, to innovate, to have vocabulary, those things are no different from any other high-seeming culture. That’s really what this show is, it demonstrates that my dad has as much art-making heft as, for instance, [the art critic] Robert Storr,” Gates declares.
‘Theaster Gates: Freedom of Assembly’, White Cube Bermondsey, London, to July 5, whitecube.com
Photograph: White Cube gallery