My great friend, Theaster Gates, is a visual artist and urban planner who describes himself as “equal parts artist, bureaucrat, and hustler.” As an artist, Gates creates multimedia projects, installations, and performance art that confront issues of social justice, racial inequality, and poverty in the United States.
Born in Chicago in 1973, Gates grew up on the West Side, in East Garfield Park. He comes from a working-class family and he used to help his father with his roofing business as a kid. He was also involved in the choir at the church his family attended, which is what initially got him interested in performance. Highly-educated, Gates first received a B.S. degree in urban planning from Iowa State University in 1996, before going on to receive his M.A. in fine arts and religious studies from the University of Cape Town in 1998 and his M.S. in urban planning, ceramics, and religious studies from Iowa State University in 2006. In 1999, he also completed a ceramics residency in Tokoname, Japan.
Black Cloud & One Building Standing, 2010. Sumi Ink. Gold Leaf & Acrylic on Wood.
Gates is unique among artists in that a large portion of his work is considered “social practice installation art.” This means that his art involves people and communities. One of the best examples of social practice installation art is The Dorchester Project, in which he purchased some abandoned homes in the South Side of Chicago and restored them using repurposed materials, turning them into cultural spaces and housing for artists in the community. Gates considers this project to be one of his most relevant and fulfilling interventions.
He also has an impressive resumé when it comes to community impact in Chicago. Early on in his career, Gates worked as an arts planner for the Chicago Transit Authority before moving on to being the director of education and outreach at the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center. He then coordinated the arts programming at the University of Chicago in the Humanities Division and later became the director of the arts program and a professor in the Department of Visual Arts.
Many of Gates’ installations are a response to African American history, often using objects and materials that have been discarded to create a conversation and tell stories that would otherwise be forgotten. For example, in his recent installation at the Tate, Amalgam, Gates recounts the history of a small island in Maine in which African-Americans were forcibly removed in 1912, without housing, jobs, or support in any way. Amalgam is sculpture, installation, film, and dance that tells this story.
When I first started collecting art, this was my first piece, and it set the bar for the entire collection. I was with Gates in person when he told me about the piece Black Cloud & One Building Standing, which led to a deeper discussion about the history of the neighborhoods that are left behind to accumulate wrath that is worse than dust.
Gates has received many awards and significant recognition including the Artes Mundi award in 2015 and the inaugural Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics in 2013. He was also ranked number 40 on ArtReview’s list of the 100 most powerful people in the art world and was named a Fellow of United States Artists in 2012.