At one point during Theaster Gates’ inspiring talk at the California African American Museum, the artist yells to the crowd, with a booming thunderous voice that shocks the audience to confounded silence: “EVERYBODY SAY SOMETHING!”
The audience of about 500 people is with him, on his side, after almost an hour of his conversation with Naima J. Keith, the museum’s director. He hollers again: “I SAID, everybody say something!”
Before he can finish the command, the audience is applauding, singing back to him, matching his energy in a cry for social action, equality and fairness not only in the art world, but in the broader nation.
Gates, whose art work can be seen in the Whitney, MoMA and Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, owns 27 buildings with nearly 100 units of housing for under-served people in Chicago’s South Side. He turns these into works of art, asking “what else can these buildings Do?”
“We’re all so frustrated at the unevenness of this world,” he says, “We need a forum, we need a way of talking this out.”
In order to create forums and inclusive spaces that would not attract unwanted disturbances from law enforcement, Gates explains that he realized he had to own land. In 2011, he started the Rebuild Foundation and launched a slew of restoration projects on the South Side.
Often accused of gentrification, Gates declares passionately, “artists are not the devil.” He then points to Fannie Mae and other large mortgage enterprises, saying, “It’s the immoral, invisible motherf***ers who are the devil! But it requires deep looking.”
Through his art, Gates tries to make people go beneath the surface and look deeply. When Keith asks him about his minimalist work, specifically the fire hoses installed at the Whitney, he says, the hoses allowed him to acknowledge that historically they had been used for black oppression. “I wanted to enter minimalism without having to apologize for cultural luggage.”
It was impossible to leave this Visions and Voices event on January 24th without a feeling of responsibility to look deeper. Gates makes apparent the importance that he places on telling not only his own story, but that of his community. “Art doesn’t leave others out,” he says.
His art is trying to say as much as possible, not as little. An outspoken artist who commands the stage, Gates’s voice is as big as his art.