Theaster Gates

Date posted: December 12, 2013 Back to the exhibition

Theaster Gates was announced as the winner of Artes Mundi 6 on January 23rd. He chose to split the £40,000 amongst the other shortlisted artists.


Theaster Gates’ practice includes sculpture, installation, performance and urban interventions that aim to bridge the gap between art and life. He works as an artist, curator, urbanist and facilitator, and his projects attempt to instigate the creation of cultural communities by acting as catalysts for social engagement that leads to political and spatial change. Gates has described his working method as “critique through collaboration” – often with architects, researchers and performers – to create works that stretch the idea of what we usually understand as visual-based practices.

Some recent examples include: Milwaukee Art Museum 2010 where Gates invited a gospel choir into the galleries to sing songs adapted from inscriptions on pots by the famous 19th century slave and potter ‘Dave Drake’; the Whitney Biennial, 2010 when the Sculpture Court was transformed with an architectural installation functioning as communal gathering space for performances, social engagement, and contemplation. Recently at Seattle Art Museum, the gallery became an audio archive entitled ‘The Listening Room’, incorporating DJ booth and DJ who played selections from the, now closed, Dr Wax record store in Chicago, formerly an influential hub for 60s, 70s and 80s music, in particular jazz, blues and R&B.

Trained as both sculptor and urban planner, his works are rooted in social responsibility and underpinned by a deep belief system. His installations and sculptures mostly incorporate found materials, often from the neighbourhoods where he is engaged, and have historical and iconic significance, such as “In Event of a Race Riot” (2011 onward) in which lengths of decommissioned fire hoses are carefully folded, rolled or stacked and emphatically presented inside gilt box frames. The hoses have iconic significance in relation to the civil rights struggles, in particular with regard to the hosing of peaceful demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. The frames act as a device for transformation but also ask us to think again about the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Other sculptures derive from the stage set for performances, such as the series of shoe-shine sculptures.

Gates ongoing real estate development, ‘The Dorchester Project’ 2006, began with the purchase of an abandoned building on 69th and Dorchester Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. In collaboration with a team of architects and designers the artist proceeded to gut and refurbish those buildings using various kinds of found materials. The buildings have become a hub for cultural activity, housing a book and record library and becoming a venue for dinners (choreographed occasions entitled ‘Plate Convergences’), concerts and performances. Gates describes this project as “real-estate art”, part of a “circular ecological system”. Building renovations are financed entirely by the sale of artworks, created from the materials salvaged from their interiors.

Artes Mundi 6 Artist Film – Theaster Gates from Artes Mundi on Vimeo.