In his exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Basel, which spreads out across two of the museum’s venues showcasing new works made especially for the occasion of the exhibition as well as interactions with works from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel curated by the artist. Together with local and international cooperation partners, the artist will engage the viewers in an extensive program of life performances. The creative practice of Theaster Gates ranges from urban interventions, performance to pottery making. His work continually aims to bridge the gulf between art and society and establish cultural communities as a way of initiating social, political, and urban change.
For his exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel Gates explores the figure of the Black Madonna, examining her political, aesthetical and metaphorical power. One point of departure for Black Madonna was Gates’ interest in the cult surrounding black Marian images as sacred, physical objects. Black Madonnas are amongst the most venerated images of Mary in Europe until this day. The byzantine-style icons have been offered votive gifts, dressed and bejeweled, enshrined and carried about in processions. The history of their perception is complex and has varied significantly over time. An important shift occurred during the 19th century: It is no longer a black image of Mary that is spoken of but an image of a black Mary. The color, once a sign of authenticity (being connoted with age and probably Eastern origin) and venerability (her face having darkened through smoke in the chapels over the century, and many Madonnas being repainted black after restoration to maintain their familiar look), was no longer understood that way. As the essentialist concept of race-as-color developed in scientific discourse, the black skin of Mary started to be perceived as a marker of ethnic or racial origin.
Gates’ new works draw from, but should not be directly conflated with this initial historical situation. His idea of the Black Madonna is a multifaceted and a very personal one. The Black Madonna acts as the figurehead, deriving her power from the reunion of objects, installations and performances which raise questions regarding the power and dissemination of images, concepts and perception of race and beauty and relations between sacred objects, works of art and the social sphere of collective experience. The making of objects, Gates argues, is always also a social intervention, since the spheres of artistic and political agency are inextricably interconnected.
The role of the archive and of archive-making has evolved in Gates’ practice over the years. Being an avid collector of collections and archives of America’s Black culture, Gates has chosen a space in the Neubau of the Kunstmuseum to host the photographic collection of the Johnson Publishing Company. The legendary company was founded by John H. Johnson in 1942 in Chicago, when he decided to initiate the first commercial monthly digest highlighting Black culture and achievement. For over 60 years iconic publications such as Ebony and Jet have been vital media of Black culture in America, vocalizing Black pride with every edition and circulation numbers running in the millions. The businessman succeeded not only in convincing corporate America to advertise in his magazines but, more or less single handedly, created the African-American consumer market.
In Basel, Gates will engage with the Johnson Publishing Company archive containing nearly 4 million images dating from 1945 to the present, shifting his attention to the singularity of these images. The photographs depict historically significant events as well as slice-of-life-moments, personalities and celebrities, politics and politicians, activist movements and everyday Americans. Gates has chosen 13’000 images of black women posing for the early editions of Ebony and Jet to create his very own Black Madonna archive. Only few works in the history of photography cast black female protagonists. This is one of the reasons, why Gates’ selection of images is unique. Whether she are lancing a defiant gaze towards the spectator, with curlers still in her hair, or hurrying down a road clutching books to her chest, for the artist every woman in this archive is a Black Madonna in her own right. Not simply because these are obviously images of black women, but because they are part of what Gates calls the deification of the black body and because they were distributed massively throughout the U.S.A. to be seen, admired and imitated by the readers as part of John Johnson’s agenda to promote positive images of Black life in America, especially in times of harsh segregation.
Formally, the installation references the furniture used by the graphic collection of Kunstmuseum Basel and reveals Gates’ enthusiasm for the methods of structuring and techniques of conservation which are the life and blood of archival practice. Taken out of their original context and freed from a straight forward mode of employment on the pages of a magazine, the photographs become archival as well as critical objects. Far from reaffirming the norms of archival practice and museumisation, he uses the methods of the archive to debunk both. The traces of image and magazine editing are left visible, revealing techniques performed behind the scenes before the reader plunges into a picture-perfect magazine reality. Interacting with selected works from the collection of the Kunstmuseum, they question the local, historical and political logic of the Eurocentric collection. His choice to work with paintings from the collection that challenge stereotypical representation of a pious and chaste Mary illustrates that the image of the Madonna is a personal one, and has been the stuff on popular and artistic imagination for centuries.
Carrying on his ideas to work with archival practice Theaster Gates realizes them in an ongoing, vivid form at the Kunstmuseum Basel | Gegenwart – he will turn the museum space into a site of creative production and interaction. As Gates aims to intertwine art and society and sees object making as a social intervention his way of thinking is related to the German artist Joseph Beuys of whom the Gegenwart shows a long-term installation on the upper floor. The conjunction of the artist’s ideas lies in the strong connection of art and life and their socially and politically active projects.
Occupying galleries on two floors of the museum Gates will set up a temporary sound studio and printing workshop where numerous live performances and interventions by the artist will take place, inviting the visitors to partake in this collective musical, poetical and spiritual experience. The temporary Vinyl Factory on site will record the music sessions directly and become part of the performance – saving the different sets for the future and building up a new music archive of the Basel experience.
Collaborations with artists, architects, researchers, and musicians are an integral part of Gates’s work. For his time in Basel, he has drawn up an extensive program of events that will activate the exhibition as a platform for contemplation, concerts, research, and public debates.
Expanding beyond the Kunstmuseum, he will also launch joint projects with other local institutions including Jazz Campus Basel, the Basler Papiermühle—Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing, and the Basler Münster.