Commitment to an “imaginative reshaping” of space and defining the identity of community are consistent elements in the narrative of the African American experience(s). Creating a space where we can unapologetically project, thrive, and revel in our blackness is essential to our inherent being. In the contemporary political and cultural climate, both in the United States and beyond, Black spaces are being infringed upon and threatened by the neocolonial process of gentrification. While gentrification has its economic benefits—which is the archetypal justification for exploiting underserved communities—it is causing a modern day displacement and rejection of black authenticity. Theaster Gates, this past week’s Goodrich C. White lecturer and native Chicagoan artist, is changing this narrative through art and community engagement.
Combining art with social justice and cultural dialogue, Theaster Gates is the epitome of an artist. Trained as a potter, a serendipitous performance artist, and professor of visual arts at the University of Chicago, Theaster Gates completes artistic projects as diverse as installation art to urban renewal projects. But instead of recounting a laundry list of all his accomplishments and visual projects, Mr. Gates started his talk on Wednesday night with a humble story about the aesthetics and symbolism of his neighborhood hardware store in the Southside of Chicago. This particular hardware store was owned by an Indian immigrant and served a predominantly Black neighborhood. As Gates so eloquently put it, the hardware store owner “built an entrepreneurial life of listening to Black people” and a way for people in the community to aggregate. The hardware store is the place that contains the stuff that keeps things in life together. Two of the major threads throughout the evening were the notion of archives and the idea of the preservation of rituals. Gates describe the hardware store as an archive of daily life and the mystical qualities of the daily rituals that occur in the store are also an archival element.
In exploring the themes of archives and rituals, Gates commented on the aesthetics of storefronts in Black communities stating that they are “an archive of Black space. The aggregate of storefronts, just by the simple nature of their proximity or adjacency to one another, “acts as an index of Black space. He kept recalling the need to preserve these records of Black life in a world that is constantly threatening to erase them completely from memory. The rituals and things of the everyday have the right to be talked about and teased out because “objects are a byproduct of a way of thinking.” In other words, “things in Black space should be grappled with and acknowledged.” He compares this acknowledgement of Black space to the idea of the body as an archive, which exists as a physical manifestation of memories. He argues that a link in the gentrification of Black space is the disappearance of Black bodies from that space and decrease in generational caring. Gates demands that we reinvest in these communities by sharing deep knowledge and advocating for their protection. As a rallying cry, “buying together until we buy ourselves out.” This opening of space creates a new dialogue and makes the conceptual frame bigger for the growth and maintenance of a community. The major task is to ask something of the individuals that move into these communities to bring something better.
An evening with Theaster Gates planted a seed of thoughtfulness in how to make an impact in the community with the hope that “there might be a great cultural come-up for everyone.”
To hear his inspiring words of art and social engagement, listen to his TED Talk: https://www.ted.com/talks/theaster_gates_how_to_revive_a_neighborhood_with_imagination_beauty_and_art/transcript?language=en[AG2]
Charity Gates, Web Content Editor