Theaster Gates and Urban Rebirth in Africa

Theaster Gates and Urban Rebirth in Africa

As a researcher interested in African and Afro Diasporic culture and its intersections with development, I am intrigued by the work of urban planner and artist Theaster Gates; by the possibilities for change in his artistic and social practice, and specifically the implications for cultural place-making and urban rebirth in the African context. For Gates, the city is sacred and he is devoted to its transformation. In this article, I consider Gates’ work, its relevance for here and now, and what it might mean in the African context, as well as some of the wider connections we might draw. I’ll be frank, I conclude with more questions than answers.

Gates’ work is rooted in Chicago and like that of many of his contemporaries such as Glen Ligon, Kara Walker and Lorna Simpson, is grounded in African American history and culture, which has itself, at various moments in its trajectory, been concerned with finding rootedness in a place, and Africa has at times been the muse. As a world-renowned artist, he’s had a relatively short trajectory; he blew up in a big way only in the last few years, no doubt helped by his presentation at documenta(13). The backlash that will inevitably come from this rapid international ascension is perhaps predictable, but for now he is set to become even bigger. That may be because his practice engages a confluence of themes that are of the contemporary moment; contemporary issues of space and place; gentrification; urban planning; cultural place-making; and urban decay and regeneration …these are all themes that are playing on our minds in the ongoing global discourses around urbanism from Leipzig to London to Chicago.


The Archive House (before and after) is the genesis of Gates’ Dorchester Projects, which has, since Gates began acquiring buildings, evolved into an artist-activated ecology of formerly abandoned buildings. In his reconstructions Gates inserts used materials with a local history (such as wooden floorboards from a closed down factory or bowling alley) into the buildings, the transformed interiors of which house donated/reclaimed archive collections, gallery space, cinema, soul food kitchen, as well as artist studios. Image:

His work deals with transformation of materials and of spaces–transformation of materials that have an affinity with the city (clay, timber, concrete, tar, brick and so on), and of the city itself as (raw) material. He deals with the transformation of neighbourhoods, not necessarily of the kind initiated by multinationals or developers, but of the kind initiated by everyday folk doing ‘humble’ work as a political gesture and personal statement to impact the spaces they inhabit and the way they function. Such a practice is particularly poignant at this moment, when it seems that increasingly, local governments and private developers are colluding to define the agenda for how our neighbourhoods are transformed, with little consultation or consideration about how to get buildings and spaces to do more for more people.

So who is Theaster Gates? He is many things at once. But perhaps one constant is that he is someone who thinks creatively and expansively in the world, and that in the end, defines how he engages in the many pies he dabbles in.

As an artist, Gates makes gallery work and he is also active in his South Side Chicago community, breathing new life into abandoned buildings, transforming them into cultural centres that house donated archives; the salvaged remnants of libraries, local schools, and shops that have closed down, and where communal dinners are hosted to foster conversation and ideas amongst a community of artists, philanthropists, and local people alike. By placing culture at the centre and as the end goal in the development of neighbourhoods, Gates tries to build a community and revive an otherwise decaying neighbourhood for himself, fellow artists and those who live there already. The de-facto Western model for urban renewal, much aligned with Richard Florida’s analysis, places artists at the centre, and those artists are themselves key to gentrification even though they are brought in initially as a local resource (the ‘shoredification’ of London is a case in point). Eventually, they, along with the locals, find themselves moving further and further to more affordable frontiers as the hipsters move in. Gates doesn’t appear to have a problem with gentrification per se, rather he is more concerned that people who live in those areas already (along with artists) should have agency in the process and benefit from it directly. Central to his practice is the notion of artist-led and artist-driven resurrection of urban spaces. Here the artist avoids becoming a victim of displacement and instead has agency and a conscious long-term goal in the process of transformation. Just whether Gates avoids the typical artist gentrification trap remains to be seen. In any case his format is expanding to other cities in the U.S., and his first major public piece outside of the US is set to arrive on UK shores through Bristol.

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Gates Ballads Staircases. Image:

Gates has his critics, who take issue with his art practice, calling it “con-art”, because it relies on wealthy collectors who wish to buy their way out of urban guilt. Gate’s concept plays into their desire to own unique art, and simultaneously helps those less fortunate. He’s been described as a “Chicago Institution”, a one-man gentrification project (albeit one that sees the whole project through its various stages), deeply entrenched in the intellectual elite of Chicago (he is Director of Art and Public Life at the University of Chicago), and with the kind of network that sees the Mayor of Chicago as his most reliable patron. He may have started out as an outsider (of the elite art world), but he is now firmly an insider, and his artistic form is widely accepted—as reflected in his representation by White Cube.

As a social entrepreneur (and developer) investing in abandoned buildings, Gates aims to leverage all opportunities (commercial or otherwise) to benefit his art and his expanded social practice. And for some, therein lie the tensions and problematics in his practice. He dips in to the commoditised art market on the one hand, and on the other, he models himself as the poster boy for urban rebirth. The artist openly acknowledges these tensions, and is uncannily open about the relationship of his work to the market. He distorts normative demarcations to fund his grand philosophical ideas, which have impact beyond the art world. As he explains: “…I would be unreasonable if I didn’t understand that the creation of art included the production of art that lives in a market.”

Regardless of what you make of Theaster Gates (Robin Hood figure or a ‘polished case of commodification deluxe’), and whether you like or loathe his work, one thing I find difficult to fault is its materiality. He trained as a potter, and expanded his practice to include timber, bricks and others. Gates takes these materials of labour, that are typically on the fringes, certainly on the margins from an art historical point of view, and makes them the elevated practice. As an artist who’s family biography
is steeped in labour (his father was a roofer), it’s not surprising that he spends a considerable amount of time thinking about the value of labour. He incorporates this into his practice as a whole and by so doing, attempts to reclaim that thing or vocation that the world might teach us is lowly or inconsequential, and takes it to an elevated position, where labour and discipline might be equal to or achieve something that painting might aspire to. He collaborated with his father to create twelve monochrome tar paintings (the material of his father’s profession) that form the core of his recent exhibition at White Cube Bermondsey.

Diagonal Bitumen, 2014, wood, rubber and tar. Image: PR

Diagonal Bitumen, 2014, wood, rubber and tar. Image: PR

There is something in this vocabulary, in this practice, that speaks of the poetics of the everyday, which Michel de Certeau writes about in his book The Practice of Everyday Life. Theaster’s social and spatial practice challenges us to think actively and creatively, and not necessarily in protest (or at least not overtly so), about the gestures and interventions we can make to impact the spaces we inhabit. These need not be grand gestures; on the contrary, his work invokes the rhetoric of the quotidian as that thing which is elevated. The idea that we as city dwellers, as city-zens, can draw on our everyday practice of “making do”, as an art form–the “art of doing” and doing well—to claim responsibility for what’s outside our door and transform our spaces. In this philosophy, we each then are bestowed with the kind of freedom and agency typically afforded to artists.

I am curious about the potential of Gates’ practice in the African context. Can his philosophy translate to this part of the world…? For me, the conversation gets very fascinating at this point. Ideas of materiality manifest in different ways in the African context, and the problems of post-industrial cities of the North aren’t always the same for those cities in the global South. I might also add that the principle of always finding use for what seems discarded or broken, and for making do, both central metaphors in Gates’ practice, is a way of life for many Africans. They have something to teach about other forms of making, other modes of thinking, and other forms of doing, since they are innovating in real time and inhabit cultures exploring things in the material that we wouldn’t believe. An illustration of this history of making can be found here.


Full article published in Omenka volume 2 issue 2.


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