Theaster Gate’s collection of stuff becomes a rollercoaster of an exhibit at Walker Art Center

Theaster Gates, with his collection

Theaster Gates, with his collection Sheila Regan

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall” offers an active means to explore history and memory, while reordering, re-prioritizing, and reflecting on constructed narratives along the way.

Theaster Gates

Walker Art Center
Included with museum admission

Based in the South Side of Chicago where he was born and raised, Gates got his start as a potter before broadening his practice over the course of his career to encompass installation and social practice art forms. 

“To say that I’m trained as a potter is a fucking understatement,” Gates says. For him, ceramics is intricately entwined with his own philosophy. “My ceramics studio is my philosophy. It’s the history of people learning how important it is to have a philosophical anchor.” 

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall”

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall” Sheila Regan

Gates devotes a room of the exhibition to pottery created in his Chicago studio. Displayed on shelves constructed using salvaged ash tree wood, the works reflect his artistic influences, as well as what he feels about the role of ceramics as a social practice art form. 

For example, some pieces showcase arts he has trained in, including Japanese-style pottery, as well as the traditions that informed those traditions. “The Japanese tea bowl wouldn’t have been made without Korean China,” he says. 

Gates has been intentional about the relationship between culture and practice in his pottery. As a young artist in Japan, his teacher challenged him to think about what a black (meaning his race) bowl would look like. 

“Why would I need a black bowl?” Gates remembers thinking. But then he thought about ways pots and plates have been used in his own family gatherings. “My momma’s beans had a lot of juice,” he says. Therefore, they needed a certain kind of bowl in order to contain and display the food appropriately. 

In another section of the exhibition, Gates projects photographs taken from glass lantern slides that had been used for half a century to teach art and architectural history at the University of Chicago. The archived slides themselves are very Eurocentric, depicting the work of white artists. 

To challenge this, Gates has inserted additions to the collection, featuring black and non-western artists, makers, and artisans. These photos blend seamlessly into the slideshow, and offer a quiet but remarkably effective act of resistance and potential for systemic change. 

The two middle rooms of the exhibition feature extreme contrasting depictions of black culture. 

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall”

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall” Sheila Regan

In one, Gates has re-imagined the headquarters of Johnson Publishing Company, which produced Ebony and Jet magazines, founded by John H. and Eunice Johnson in 1942. The decked out space evokes the Johnson’s modernist African aesthetic, complete with colorful prints and patterns, artworks made by African and African American artists, and Gates’ own sculptural works, made from bound Johnson publications. 

“We hope people will chill in the space,” Gates says. 

Next to the Johnsons’ area is a room filled with racist dolls, antiques, and other “negrobilia” collected by another black couple named Ana J. and Edward J. Williams. The extremely derogatory images are very jarring, and could potentially be traumatic. 

Gates came into the Williams’ collection of 6,000 objects because the children of the couple didn’t want their own children growing up around the images. He warns anyone approaching the exhibit to enter as if they were entering a war museum. “How do you train a person to look at the ugliness of America?” he asks. “I wouldn’t apologize about my collection, but that’s the ugliness of America. Somebody’s gotta deal with this, and this is in my collection. This is in my truth.” 

This is Gates’ first major museum solo show, but not his first collaboration with the Walker, as he’s had work featured in “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and “Question the Wall Itself.” He also worked on a performance with Marc Bamuthi Joseph, and has a piece in the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. 

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall”

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall” Sheila Regan