In the beginning, there was clay. Clay was without form. Thus begins Theaster Gates’ ‘A Clay Sermon’, a film combining music, images, and words to paint a picture of the limitless potential of clay and working with Clay. No wonder the Judeo-Christian scriptures view clay as a profound metaphor for the relationship between a creative God and a co-creating humanity.
Clay made me and is forever the root of my artistic interest – TG
Gates’ exhibition combines history with art, religion and culture, the past with the present, that which is oppressive with that which is liberating, the improvisatory and the planned, chance and design; while using a huge diversity of media as artist, craftsperson, curator, designer, entrepreneur, historian, musician, priest/shaman, researcher, and social analyst. Featuring ceramic objects, sculptures, installations, film, and studio materials from the past two decades, this exhibition considers both the material and spiritual legacies of Clay.
Gates is a polymathic figure, a reality expressed not just in this exhibition but also in the multi-venue presentation dedicated to clay on which the Whitechapel Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Serpentine Gallery and White Cube have collaborated, together with the artist. Gates has been Emeritus Fellow at the V&A Research Institute, working with the V&A’s ceramic collections to examine the relationship between Eastern and Western aesthetic practices and political histories within craft. An intervention in the V&A’s Ceramics galleries opens this autumn. Gates will also conceive the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion, the Serpentine’s annual architectural commission and platform for live summer programmes. White Cube Mason’s Yard is currently presenting ‘Oh, The Wind Oh, The Wind’, an exhibition of new works by Gates.
The Whitechapel Gallery is also showing other complementary ceramic themed installations with Yoko Ono’s MEND PIECE for London, in which visitors mend broken fragments of ceramic cups and saucers using scissors, glue, twine and tape and think of mending the world at the same time, together with Simone Fattal’s Finding a Way, a procession of ceramic figures who are embarking on a spiritual and physical metamorphosis. Also on display in This is the Night Mail, a selection by Ida Ekblad of works from the Christen Sveaas Art Foundation, is Theaster Gates’ ‘Migration Rickshaw for Sleeping, Building and Playing’. Gates’ ‘Rickshaw for Fossilized Soul Wares’ features in A Clay Sermon. It is rare to find such an opportunity for multivalent reflection through so much collaboration and coordination.
Gates is a collaborator who, in the words of Lydia Yee, Chief Curator, Whitechapel Gallery, intertwines ‘artistic and social practices, bringing together research, ideas, process and production’. Clay has been central to Gates’ practice since earning an MA in urban planning and ceramics at Iowa State University in 1996 and subsequently studying pottery in Tokoname, Japan. As Yee notes, it has been foundational to his interests and investigations, which ‘span clay mineralogy, industrial and studio pottery production, the use of clay in teaching and community building, and the ceremonial and ritual use of ceramics.’ The exhibition explores his own work with Clay, his affinities with potters internationally and the relationships among his various studio, social engagement and urban regeneration projects.’
The exhibition begins with a survey of the Gates’ clay works, from examples of his early ceramic production to ‘Afro-Mingei’ sculptures and large vessels. Bookending the exhibition is a display of his most recent body of work, large stoneware vessels installed on custom-made plinths of hand-milled wood and stone. Their forms derive from a range of sources, including African sculpture, the human body, and industrial and utilitarian objects.
Alongside these are set examples of work by those who have shaped Gates’ own approach to Clay. They include David Drake, an enslaved African American potter who worked on a plantation in South Carolina. Drake wrote poems and signed his stoneware pots when literacy among enslaved people was outlawed. Also included are potters who exchanged traditions from different cultural contexts, such as Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, who established the influential Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall in 1920, and Ruth Duckworth, who fled the Nazi regime, studied in the UK and made her mark with monumental stoneware murals in Chicago. Finally, working in partnership with the V&A and drawing from other public and private collections, Gates has selected and displayed several historical objects that speak to the significance of ceramics in global trade, colonial expansion, slavery, and abolitionism in the UK.
Gates says: ‘Clay made me and is forever the root of my artistic interest, but I don’t feel limited by any origin story to work solely within the confines of my origins. Blackness, Clay, immateriality, and space are all launch pads that encourage advanced practice, reflection, trial, and iteration. I am practising acts of creation.’
Much of this comes together in ‘A Clay Sermon’, filmed in an abandoned conveyance structure for a brick manufacturing company – a site of intense ceramic production for over 50-years and now part of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts where Gates has been a Visiting Artist. As a youth, Gates joined the New Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist Church choir and here mixes music, speech, and visuals to evoke the Black sermon and Baptist hymnody as a way of connecting Black religious music traditions – jazz and gospel – to the history and practice of ceramics. Standing, pacing, and kneeling in the building’s cloistered spaces, as artist-priest Gates sings improvised hymns with his group the Black Monks whilst potting and musing on water and Clay for an absent congregation. We – the congregation – are shown the whole process from digging the Clay, through working the wheel, to firing, as religious ritual.
Gates says that Clay feels to him like ‘a a philosophy’ and wants ‘to recall the truths within forms; eat from them’. Potters, he suggests, ‘learn how to shape the world’. Firing is an act of faith. The transmutation that occurs in the kiln is alchemical. This exhibition is an act of education. It ends with ‘They believe, you breathe, they quake, you dance, they wet, you pray’.
Top Photo: Installation view: Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon, Whitechapel Gallery, 29 September 2021 – 9 January 2022. Image courtesy Whitechapel Gallery. Photo: Theo Christelis. Words: © Artlyst 2021
Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon, Whitechapel Gallery, 29 September 2021 – 9 January 2022