Afro Mingei

A Project by Theaster Gates

The 2018 Nasher Prize Laureate’s project merges Japanese and African American culture with food, drink, ceramics, and music.

Afro Mingei took place at the Nasher Sculpture Center and was a convivial gathering space exploring the intersection of Japanese and African American philosophy, aesthetic modes and cultural classifications. Staged in the center’s front, corner gallery, the project invited people to experience this cultural binary through food, drink, music, ceramic wares, and other works of art by Theaster Gates.

The innovative menu combined the culinary traditions of Japan and the African American South. Accompanying offerings included tea service, Japanese whiskeys, craft cocktails, beer and wine, honoring libations that aid the gathering. Other elements included a communal table and bar fabricated by Gates and his design team using salvaged wood from Chicago, as well as neon sculptures, prints, and a vase for ikebana. In a nod to the sonic experimentations and underpinnings of Gates’ practice, Afro Mingei featured a DJ booth and a selection of 1,000 vinyl records from Gates’ personal collection of soul and R & B music.

Gates created an environment of intimacy and cultural pluralism. Through this work, he continues to refuse traditional binaries of black and white and instead leans into the truth of his story, and his ongoing dialogue with Japanese philosophy and creative craft. The term Afro Mingei, coined by Gates, connects the word for the iconic Black hairstyle that served as a symbol of Black identity and empowerment in the 1960s and 1970s and the Japanese term mingei that was conceived by philosopher Soetsu Yanagi and ceramists Shoji Hamada and Kanjiro Kawai to describe and honor the realm of humble objects of daily use made by unknown craftspeople.

Afro Mingei was open from October 2022 through April 2023.

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.


Theaster Gates: Afro Mingei at the Nasher Sculpture Center is made possible by generous support from GRAY Gallery and Dedrea & Paul Gray and the Green Family Art Foundation.