Theaster Gates likes to get his hands dirty. Syne two new London exhibitions are dedicated to clay, and in one there’s a film of him singing with great gusto as he throws a pot. So it feels a shame not to be meeting one to one, but via laptop. The artist decided at the last minute to stay at home in Chicago while the shows were mounted, directing things on Zoom. (He finally made it to the UK this week; on Thursday he will give a talk with potter Magdalene Odundo.)
“I’m really mindful of my health and of the truth of these contagious times,” he tells me. “I just wanted to give myself time to be in the best shape so my body would be as resistant as possible. Even if the world is opening up, I’m happy to move slower.”
Gates is speaking from his library – “the brain!” – which, as well as books, contains shelves of records and magazines, turntables, and vintage speakers a hi-fi buff would kill for, through which he is currently listening to Etta James, early Miles Davis, and the house music that rocked, or rather jacked, his city when Gates was a teenager. (“House music is on my mind all the time,” he admits.) Nou 48, he spent most of lockdown in the library with his band the Black Monks, who formed a bubble together. “We were writing new music," hy sê. “I was making pots, and sometimes my guys would come over just to get out of the house. I feel really fortunate that I was able to spend time with my best friends, sometimes every day.”
There were other upsides, namely that Gates didn’t have to be a non-stop superstar artist. “I didn’t have to go to 20 dinners, do a bunch of interviews. I felt like an everyday guy who once or twice a year something special happens to, like you go to a funeral, or a wedding.” Before Covid, hy sê, “every week I was in a different country.”
Using everything from ceramics to sculpture to music, Gates’s work reaches out far beyond gallery walls, powered by his can-do attitude, urge to think big and deep sense of social responsibility. His most ambitious work, the Dorchester Projects, saw him buy up abandoned buildings, insluitend die Stony Island Bank on Chicago’s South Side, for as little as $1, and refurbish them as cultural centres, libraries, artists studios, and mixed-income housing.
Early in the pandemic, at a time of mask shortages in Chicago, he joined with the fashion label Citizens of Humanity to produce and give away thousands of face coverings. He also converted Stony Island into a food bank, and continued to fund local artists. “There was deep acknowledgement of the fact that people continued to matter, even though we couldn’t be as proximate to each other," hy sê. “Covid made me be more careful in my dealings, but I still felt present and affected and sharing the love.”
Working with clay represents a return to the source of his original inspiration. As a child – the youngest of nine, and the only boy – Gates spent summer holidays in Mississippi with his family, where he would love to poke around in the dirt: “You could just dig anywhere and get this beautiful bright orange sticky mud and make things.” He studied urban planning and ceramics at Iowa State University, then spent a year in Tokoname, Japan, to learn from the pottery masters there. His film at the Whitechapel includes some footage from around the same time, of Gates as an eager student stating his ambition – now satisfied – to make an art movie about clay.
Twenty years ago, ceramics were regarded as the products of craft; these days, critics accept them as art, but Gates’s renewed embrace of clay was more due to a desire, in lockdown, to work with something humble. “I think in this moment where everything is kind of bombastic and plastic and prefabricated, that clay feels perverse because it’s lowly," hy sê.
His exhibitions take in items ranging from simple “sake bowls and tea cups and bottles” at the White Cube, to a large white vessel inspired by the Greek-American ceramicist Peter Voulkos at the Whitechapel, along with pieces by other makers, including a jug by David Drake, AKA Dave the Potter, who was born a slave in South Carolina in 1800 and whose pots, simply glazed and unadorned apart from his signature and sometimes lines of poetry, now go for $1m at auction. Carefully placed together with Gates’s own work, the ceramics tell stories of global trade and racial oppression, of Black spirituality and celebration.
Next year, Gates will become the first artist to design the Serpentine Pavilion, a structure that will stand in London’s Kensington Gardens all summer. Usually only architects get the honour. “If I’m going to be given the title of the first artist, then I want the pavilion to feel artful," hy sê. “I don’t want it to just be an exploration of architectural principles or tectonic theory. I want to reflect the hand and the artist’s creativity, the importance of looking at things and discovery.”
Gates is also working on Barack Obama’s presidential library, which will display the 44th president’s papers. “I want to participate in all levels of culture-making, of society-building, of nation-building, so I feel really fortunate that I have a president – I still call Barack my president – that I really believe in. Anything he and Michelle want from me, I’m probably going to be down to do it.” Is he friends with the Obamas? “That would be a stretch,”Lag hy, “but I definitely respect him and I think that they respect me.”
Gates also sees himself as a custodian of African-American culture. He has bought up and preserved items of significance, ranging from the joyful (the pioneering house DJ Frankie Knuckles’ record collection) to those of intense sorrow. On the lawn of his building the Stony Island Arts Bank stands a gazebo. Seven years ago, when it was situated in a park in Cleveland, Ohio, someone sitting in it called the police to say that a black male was pointing a “probably fake” pistol at passersby. When the police arrived on the scene, they shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead.
“We use the gazebo all the time, with public activations, live music, and it’ll remain there until [Tamir’s mother] Samaria Rice finds a permanent home for it. It reminds me of how important moments like the Serpentine pavilion are – and monument making and site making – and how creatives and artists need to practise so that when moments like Tamir’s death happen, we know what to do.”
Gates says he is acutely aware of his privileged position as an artist. No one else in his family had any artistic leanings, “but my mom made doilies and Christmas wreaths. She was crafty. And my dad could fix a pinball machine and a refrigerator motor and a car motor. He was a mechanic, an entrepreneur and eventually a roofer. So you know, my skillset is probably no greater than my mom and dad, yet it allowed me access to one of the most privileged professions in the world. Those are the moments when I realise that access matters even more than skill. It’s someone saying, ‘I love what you do, can you do it here?''
Gates thinks that this is work everyone – of whatever race – should be doing. “It’s not just that white corporations have responsibility. I think all people have a responsibility to all people. Black artists should have a commitment to designers and artists of colour, but I think we should all have a commitment to the oppressed. We should all be creating opportunities, not only for the people who are just like us, but for people who deserve opportunity.”
As with his Civil Tapestry reeks, which took the kind of fire hoses turned against civil rights protesters in the 60s and turned them into seductive abstract sculptures, Gates’s work fuses history with beauty and a burning social conscience. Uiteindelik, egter, there is something in his work that just speaks to a love of being around other people, whether mourning, dancing, working, or in quiet contemplation. The last piece you see before leaving the Whitechapel is a chair and a large pot standing on a loudly patterned rug, taken from the offices of Johnson, publishers of Black-interest magazines Jet and Ebony, and dirtied by years of meetings and parties.
“My art needs people in order to be its best self,” Gates says. “The spaces need to be activated and I need help. Uiteindelik, when I’m building things, I’m building not just for myself but for the people around me.”