Theaster Gates

2018 Laureate
With a strong focus on the material aspects of memory, history, and place, Nasher Prize 2018 Laureate Theaster Gates has established a new paradigm for sculpture by joining together disparate methods of artistic production—the creation of discrete objects and the re-zoning, rebuilding, and reterritorializing1 of architectural spaces.
“There’s room inside of a sculptural practice to re-imagine what the raw material is, so that we can re-imagine what the end sculptural work looks like.”

In both approaches, Gates reactivates forgotten or lost associations inherent in discarded materials, such as decommissioned fire hoses, back issues of Ebony and Jet magazines and reconfigured gym floors, to manifest spaces and objects that are at once intimate and expansive, humble and ambitious. Trained as a potter, with masters’ degrees in urban planning and theology, Gates has synthesized these different areas of study into a diverse practice that incorporates sculpture, ceramics, painting, music, performance, architecture, urban planning, and community engagement. At its core, Gates’s practice is firmly situated in the manipulation of raw materials to create new forms, or what is otherwise defined as sculpture. As Gates says, “There’s room inside of a sculptural practice to re-imagine what the raw material is, so that we can re-imagine what the end sculptural work looks like.”2 For the artist, “raw material” includes such traditional sculptural media as clay, wood, and bronze, but can also include abandoned buildings, artifacts, and archives. Through his multifarious practice, Gates is revolutionizing how makers transcend disciplines by collapsing traditional categories and hierarchies into the singular calling of being an artist.

The Work of Theaster Gates

Though best known for his architectural projects, such as Dorchester Projects (ongoing since 2008) and Stony Island Arts Bank (ongoing since 2015), for which the artist has restored abandoned buildings in Chicago and recast them as cultural centers, Gates approaches all aspects of his work from the perspective of an object-maker: “I’m a potter. We tackle things that are at our wheel. We try with the skill we have to think about this next bowl that I want to make. And it went from a bowl, to a singular house, to a cultural district, to thinking about the city and at every point there were things that I didn’t know, that I had to learn.”3 For Gates, building-making is no different than ceramic-object-making, in that each results in the transformation of raw materials into something beautiful, or as he has put it, “the magic of taking the lowliest material on earth—mud—and turning it into something beautiful and useful.”4 Likewise, each method of production taps into the artist’s labor and direct use of his hands to mold and shape new forms.

Gates grew up in West Chicago where he witnessed black neighborhoods shift from thriving spaces of industry, commerce, and community, to areas blighted by abandonment in the wake of white flight.5 In the void of decline, new local economies developed linked to drugs and crime, and neighborhoods, such as Greater Grand Crossing, further deteriorated as the built environment fell into disrepair. Gates uses his work to impede these kinds of “slow catastrophes”, which he describes as:

[…] The ways in which the slow erosion of the divine, the slow erosion of education, the slow erosion of family, the introduction of drugs, the introduction of a hopelessness that comes as a result of having economic centers and economic generators ripped from your neighborhood. […] So some of the restoration work that I feel like I’m involved in [answers the question of] what do you do with 52 closed schools? […] What do you do when the general condition feels like the condition of hopelessness?

And […] I refuse to live in a hopeless, pessimistic environment. And as a result, you just have to work. Work to reconcile the lack of education, the immediacy of gun violence, the immediacy of drugs. And you have to do whatever you can within your means to try to be a stop-gap. I think that there are moments as a maker when I have to use my brain for other things. When I have to use my hands for other things. And to just be in the studio when there’s a levy broken outside…well it would just be a waste of my hands.6

Yet if Gates battles against decline, it also feeds his many projects in its material form as detritus that the artist recycles and reintroduces as art.

Gates mines not only the remnants of sites, but his personal narrative as well: as the youngest of nine children and the only son, the artist observed his father support his family as a roofer and learned the realities of economics and hard labor at a young age. As an adult, the artist honored his father’s labor by using his roofer’s tools (which Gates inherited upon his father’s retirement) in the creation a series of tar paintings replete with potent cultural, political, and art historical associations. Gates considers this series as a kind of conceptual work that equates vernacular labor with high art vis-à-vis abstract expressionist painting. With the inclusion of an Ebony magazine cover featuring the phrase “THE BLACK MALE” super-imposed over three stylized African American male profiles, Gates’s powerful painting Ain’t I A Man (2012) is a metaphorical self-portrait whose title solicits a rhetorical, existential question concerning identity. Made using the tools of his father’s trade, with materials that reference both labor and aspiration, the painting alludes to aspects of Gates’s own identity and also to formal concerns such as surface and texture—situating his tar paintings among the gestural dripped and poured paintings of Jackson Pollock and Robert Rauschenberg’s black collage-paintings of the early 1950s. Gates adapted the phrase “Ain’t I a man” from the motto “Am I not a man and a brother” that appeared on medallions featuring an image of an African man in chains produced by 18th-century English potter, abolitionist, and Wedgwood company founder Josiah Wedgwood as early as 1787.7 The motto and image were also widely circulated as a woodcut illustrating John Greenleaf Whittier’s 1837 antislavery poem, “Our Countrymen in Chains.8” The African man’s profile on the medallion is strikingly similar to those depicted on the cover of the Ebony magazine in Gates’s painting, but in the context of the original illustration, the slave’s uplifted gaze reads as supplication, while those profiles on the Ebony cover gaze upward in hope and aspiration.

The conflation of histories, cultures, and narratives is a method Gates employs widely throughout his work. An early example is the artist’s performance and exhibition titled Yamaguchi Story: Plate Convergence at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago in 2007. Inspired by his interest in the history of Japanese pottery (and time spent in Japan as an undergraduate student), Gates invited 100 guests to a dinner where he served traditional soul food alongside Japanese dishes, such as sashimi and sushi, on plates he crafted using ceramic techniques and materials from Itawamba County, Mississippi (a territory known for its rich clay and manufacturing facilities). During the dinner, Gates told his guests the story of the master Japanese ceramicist, Shoji Yamaguchi, a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima, who fled Japan and settled in Mississippi after World War II, where he fell in love with and married a black civil rights activist. The Yamaguchis became known in the area for hosting dinner parties that doubled as salons for political discussion and cultural understanding. When the couple died in a car accident, their extensive pottery collection was left to their son, who founded the Yamaguchi Institute to carry on his parents’ work. Gates’s telling of the Yamaguchi saga moved many of his guests to the point of convincing them of its veracity and encouraging them (both metaphorically and monetarily) to buy into the story. Eventually it came out that the story was a fabrication on Gates’s part—a false premise to bring people together under the pretense of recreating an evening “reminiscent” of a Yamaguchi dinner party. Gates has described this performance as a turning point in his career: the introduction of narrative into his ceramic practice allowed him to transcend the invisible dividing line between craft and “mainstream” art and through this performance, Gates transformed from a potter to a conceptual artist.9

Gates’s use of performance to engage in cultural dialogue is a reoccurring method in his work. In 2012, the artist established the Soul Manufacturing Corporation and with the help of friends and master potters Matthew Dercole, Pei-Hsuan Wang, and Yuko Fukata, created a factory in the back galleries of Locust Projects in Miami where they threw pots and formed clay bricks, while engaging visitors in wide-ranging conversations. The Soul Manufacturing Corporation (SMC) repeated their performance at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia and Whitechapel Gallery in 2013, and aspects of it were performed by Gates as part of his project for the 14th edition of the Istanbul Biennial in 2015. While Gates’s performances as part of the SMC were intended to engage audiences in conversation and exchange, with their “factories” operating as gathering places for makers, at its core the SMC sought to find meaning through the production of things, using clay as its primary material.

Music is a significant aspect of Gates’s performance practice. During lectures, it is not uncommon for the artist to break into song, singing gospel hymns that are either drawn from memory or improvised on the spot.10 Gates’s comfort with music and singing derives from his experience leading the choir of Chicago’s New Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church when he was just 14 years old.11 In 2010, for example, at the opening reception for his solo exhibition To Speculate Darkly at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Gates enlisted a 250-voice choir to perform songs he had adapted from the inscriptions on pots made by the well-known 19th-century slave and potter, Dave Drake (also known as Dave the Potter).12

Since 2008, Gates has directed a band called the Black Monks of Mississippi, an experimental music ensemble of Chicago-based vocalists and musicians, who take inspiration from the diverse traditions of Gospel, Blues, and Buddhist chants. The Black Monks of Mississippi perform frequently at Gates’s exhibition openings and installations, notably as part of his exhibition Temple Exercises at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago in 2009; as well as Gates’s 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, 2012 for documenta 13 in Kassel, Germany, where recorded performances played on monitors throughout the house’s many rooms; and during Sanctum, at the site of the ruins of Temple Church in Bristol in 2015. For the Bristol project, the Black Monks of Mississippi initiated a series of ongoing performances that filled a temporary architectural space constructed by Gates with music, spoken word artists, and gospel choirs, nonstop 24 hours a day, for 24 days.

The collaborative aspect of Gates’s performances emerges strongly in his space-making13 projects, for which he is arguably best known. Together with local builders, architects, and hired hands from the neighborhood, Gates restored an enclave of buildings in Greater Grand Crossing, Chicago and reframed them as cultural centers for the neighborhood and as repositories and access points to Gates’s various archive collections that index black American culture.14 Playing off the double meaning of  “projects” as both a community (as related to the American term for public housing) and an ongoing artistic endeavor, Gates seeks to create spaces that preserve the identity of the neighborhood and celebrate black culture, as he elaborates, “The goal was actually to create more opportunities so that more artists could do more in my neighborhood. Or to ensure that culture was alive for a long time as other kinds of building projects and processes were happening around me.”15

Each building had an initial purpose and function: the Archive House was the repository for archival collections and contained a library comprising the inventory of the defunct Prairie Avenue Bookstore; the Listening House functioned as a performance and listening space, where visitors could access the Dr. Wax Record Archive; and the Black Cinema House hosted film screenings, discussions, and workshops for neighborhood families to learn about the history of Black cinema and make movies of their own. But the functions for each building have since evolved with the needs of Gates, his studio, and the community. With the opening of the Stony Island Arts Bank in 2015, which Gates describes as “an icon for new things happening on the South Side,”16 the artist consolidated his variously dispersed archives into the bank, centralizing this aspect of his practice and also opening up the other buildings to new possibilities and purposes. Currently, the Archive House functions as a pottery studio for Dorchester Industries, which makes objects and furniture to fund Gates’s ongoing space-making projects, while the Black Cinema House has been converted into the artist’s private residence. These functions will likely change as Gates adapts new spaces for cultural development and further expands his engagement with the community. In relating his space-making work back to his studio practice, Gates says,

The part that feels exciting there is that whether it be art or space, it feels like it’s born out of a consciousness or ideology that just wants to consider material big or small, and give context to those materials or give a new context to a set of materials or give time and attention to a thing that hasn’t had time or attention for a long time. And you find that whether it’s a ceramic object, or a piece of fire hose, or a tar kettle, or a building, that all of those things require the same diligence as a maker. They may require an understanding of different contexts, like say the way that the Stony Island Arts Bank works is very different than the way a tar painting would work, but in a day, I have to consider both of those things. So, sculpture in that way is the ability to move between different kinds of projects with deep facility and a deep understanding and a desire to be trumped by the intelligence of the material and fight with the material over and over again, until something is born.17

In selecting Gates as the 2018 Nasher Prize Laureate, the jury chose an artist whose work addresses contemporary sculpture’s primary concerns: the status of object-making, the ever-expanding definition of sculpture to include consideration of space, place, and people’s interaction with it, and the urgent need to address relevant social and political issues. As Gates’s practice evolves it will undoubtedly continue to help us form a basis of understanding the chaos of the world and recognizing the beauty hidden within it.

About Theaster Gates

Born in 1973, Gates grew up in West Chicago. He studied ceramics and urban planning at Iowa State University and earned his master’s degree in fine arts and religious studies at the University of Cape Town in 1998. In 2006, he earned his second master’s degree in urban planning, ceramics, and religious studies at Iowa State University. That same year, Gates was hired at the University of Chicago as an arts programmer and he purchased the first building that would become part of Dorchester Projects. He has exhibited widely, including such group exhibitions as the Whitney Biennial, New York (2010); dOCUMENTA 13 (2012); The Spirit of Utopia, Whitechapel Gallery, London (2013); When the Stars Begin to Fall: Imagination and the American South, Studio Museum, New York (2014); All the World’s Futures, 56th Venice Biennial, Venice (2015); and The Color Line, Musée du quai Branly, Paris (2016). Solo exhibitions include To Speculate Darkly: Theaster Gates and Dave, the Slave Potter, Milwaukee Art Museum (2010); Seattle Art Museum (2011); MCA Chicago (2013); ‘The Black Monastic’ residency at Museu Serralves, Porto (2014); Black Archive, Kunsthaus Bregenz (2016); True Value, Fondazione Prada, Milan (2016); and The Minor Arts, National Gallery of Art (2017). Gates was awarded the inaugural Vera List Center Prize for Art and Politics in 2013 and won the Artes Mundi 6 prize in 2015. In 2017, he was awarded the French Legion d'Honneur. 

Gates’s work is in the collection of many museums and public collections, such as the Brooklyn Museum, New York; Jimenez-Colon Collection, Ponce, Puerto Rico; Milwaukee Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Smart Museum of Art, Chicago; Tate, London; Try-Me, Richmond, Virginia; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

Gates currently serves as the Chairman and Founder of the Rebuild Foundation and as Director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative at the University of Chicago, where he is Professor in the department of visual arts. He lives and works in Chicago.


[1] Reterritorialization is the restructuring of a place that has experienced deterritorialization, or the weakening of ties between culture and place. In this instance, it refers to Gates’s efforts to establish positive beliefs and situations in buildings and neighborhoods that have otherwise lost their history or ties to historical culture. See: Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Œdipus, trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane (London and New York: Continuum, 2004).

[2] Interview with the artist, Chicago, September 5, 2017.

[3] Theaster Gates, “How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty, and art,” Ted Talk, March 2015:https://www.ted.com/talks/theaster_gates_how_to_revive_a_neighborhood_with_imagination_beauty_and_art/transcript#t-20149 [accessed September 11, 2017].

[4] As quoted in John Colapinto, “The Real Estate Artist: High Concept Renewal on the South Side,” The New Yorker, January 20, 2014: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/01/20/the-real-estate-artist [accessed August 17, 2017].

[5] “The community [the neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing and the location of Gates’s Dorchester Projects], and many of its buildings, were built by English, Irish, Scottish, and German immigrants who arrived in the late nineteenth century. As black families moving north settled into the community in the 1950s, many white families left. In the most recent census, more than ninety-six percent of residents identified as African American.” Thomas D. Trummer, “Tar and Clay,” in Theaster Gates: Black Archive 22-45 (Cologne: Kunsthaus Bregenz, 2017), 34-35.

[6] Interview with the artist, Chicago, September 5, 2017.

[7] See Carolyn Williams, “‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’ ‘Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?’: The Trans-Atlantic Crusade Against the Slave Trade and Slavery,” Caribbean Quarterly 56, no. 1/2, Slavery, Memory, and Meanings: The Caribbean and the Bicentennial of the Passing of the British Abolition of the Trans Atlantic Trade in Africans (March – June 2010): 107-126.

[8] American Anti-Slavery Society, and Anti-Slavery Office. Am I not a man and a brother?. , 1837. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2008661312/. (Accessed September 11, 2017.)

[9] Lilly Wei, “Theaster Gates: In the Studio with Lilly Wei,” Art in America (December 1, 2011): http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/magazine/theaster-gates/ [accessed August 10, 2017].

[10] See Gates’s lecture “I Believe in Places,” 2013 at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha, Nebraska: http://www.bemiscenter.org/art/exhibitions/theaster-gates-town-hall.html [accessed September 11, 2017].

[11] Christian Vivaros-Fauné, “Theaster Gates,” ArtReview (January/February 2012): https://artreview.com/features/jan_feb_2012_feature_theaster_gates/ [accessed August 10, 2017].

[12] Dave Drake was a well-known slave in antebellum South Carolina, where he produced stoneware pottery and famously inscribed his pots with poetry, despite the illegal status of a literate slave. See Naomi Blumberg, “Dave the Potter,” Encyclopedia Britannica, August 13, 2014: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Dave-the-Potter [accessed September 11, 2017].

[13] Gates refers to his restoration projects (which are often described by others as part of a “social practice”), such as Dorchester Projects and the Stony Island Arts Bank as “making space” or “space-making” to refer to the physical and metaphorical ways he transforms space into places for community and cultural exchange.

[14] As of this essay, Gates’s archival practice includes 60,000 glass lantern slides from the University of Chicago’s art history department, covering art history from the Paleolithic period to modernism; the Prairie Avenue Bookstore Library, comprising the recovered inventory from the defunct architectural book library; the Dr. Wax Record Archive of vinyl records recovered from the closing of the eponymous South Side music store; the Johnson Publishing Archive and Library, publishers of magazines such as Ebony and Jet; the Frankie Knuckles Record Collection of vinyl records from the collection of the American DJ, record producer, and remixer; and the Edward J. Williams Collection of racist and defamatory artifacts that the original collector purchased as a means of removing the objects from circulation.

[15] Interview with the artist, Chicago, September 5, 2017.

[16] Interview with the artist, Chicago, September 5, 2017.

[17] Interview with the artist, Chicago, September 5, 2017.