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My Labor Is My Protest

Theaster Gates

My Labor Is My Protest

7 September – 11 November 2012


7 September – 11 November 2012


White Cube Bermondsey

144 – 152 Bermondsey Street
London SE1 3TQ

Gates is an artist, curator and urban activist whose work aims to galvanise communities and act as a catalyst for social change. For this exhibition, Gates created a multi-faceted installation that investigated themes of race and history through sculpture, installation, performance and two-dimensional works exhibited both inside and outside of the Bermondsey site. The exhibition furthered the artist's interest in a critique of social practice, shared economies and the question of objects in relation to political and cultural thought.

In 'Raising Goliath' (2012) and 'My Labor is My Protest' (2012), Gates readdresses the ongoing struggle for civil rights and, like his series, ‘In the Event of Race Riot’ (2011 onwards), these works have special iconic significance in relation to particular episodes in recent American history. In 'Raising Goliath', Gates used theatrical pulleys to suspend a classic red fire-truck from the ceiling of South Gallery II, counterbalancing it with a huge metal container, housing hundreds of leather bound issues of African American magazines such as Jet and Ebony. Gates describes the work as a way to ‘hoist the history of the Civil Rights out of view, making it both weightless and invisible...’ and to highlight ‘the way things change and remain the same’. In My Labor is My Protest, he parked a yellow fire truck at the entrance to the Bermondsey gallery and partially covered it with tar, a gesture that is both political and personal since it is inspired, in part, by Gates’ father who tarred roofs for a living as an alternative form of protest during the Chicago riots (1968).

Gates refers to his working method as ‘critique through collaboration’ and his projects often stretch the form of what we usually understand visual art to be. His focus is also on the availability of information and the cross-fertilisation of ideas. In South Gallery I, a library was installed, borrowed from the archive of Johnson Publishing Company, the Chicago-based publishers of Ebony. The curated selection of books and magazines offered a history of black American culture. Alongside this, a vintage make-up counter displayed a selection of cosmetics from Fashion Fair, the first and largest company to produce products specifically for a black consumer and also a subsidiary of Johnson Publishing Company. Visitors were able to book a makeover from Fashion Fair make-up artists during the opening and the first two weekends of the exhibition.

The exhibition also included various other sculptural and two-dimensional works that explore Gates' interest in the poetics of re-purposed and salvaged materials. These included 'ready-mades' such as his father's tar kettle, brush and bucket, a fire hose that ran the length of the central corridor space, a series of tar paintings that incorporate various textural objects and several 'Civil Tapestry' works, made from colourful strips of decommissioned fire hose tonally arranged and sewn together.

During the course of the exhibition, there were two performances by The Black Monks of Mississippi. This is an ensemble of musicians and vocalists that Gates writes for, performs in and directs and whose music includes such diverse traditions as Gospel, Blues and Buddhist and Zen chants. Gates’ performances with the The Black Monks of Mississippi are highly animated since for him, sound only works in conjunction with movement of the body.

Theaster Gates was born in 1973. He lives and works in Chicago. He has had solo exhibitions at Seattle Art Museum (2011), Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (2011), Milwaukee Art Museum (2010), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (2009) and Art Institute of Chicago (2007). His work has been shown in group exhibitions at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (2010) and the Tokoname Museum of Ceramic History, Japan (2005). He also featured in ‘dOCUMENTA 13’, Kassel, Germany (2012), the ‘Armory Show’, New York (2011) and ‘Whitney Biennial’, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2010). One of his most esteemed projects is ‘The Dorchester Project’ (2006), which is ongoing.

A fully illustrated catalogue, with texts by Bill Brown, Fred Moten and Jacqueline Terrassa, was published to accompany the exhibition.

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Theaster Gates

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