Theaster Gates puts viewers to work when they experience his art, and this is precisely what drew me to a particular group of paintings at his current show Regen Projects in L.A.
The exhibition titled But to Be a Poor Race is an homage to W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk, the seminal series of essays that address the role of African Americans in society. The show features sculptures, wood structures, paintings and a video installation that tackle the structural, social and political elements of wealth and poverty. Rows of Jet magazines bound in black greet visitors walking into the gallery with additional rows of similar books outlining the perimeter of the show. The black spines of the books are embossed in gold prose that lyrically crystallize the evolving editorial voice of the black magazine during its 71 year run (Jet was produced by Johnson Publishing and Theaster Gates is the custodian of the publishing archive through the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago).
To me the most interesting portion of the show included a series of colorful paintings of bar graphs and charts. The reproductions were rendered abstract through the deliberate omission of their representational data. The graphs were representations of Du Bois’ sociological work which examined black americans post Emancipation and Reconstruction. In the gallery space the paintings became abstracted answers to an unknown question; in retrospect this was both intriguing and frustrating but I now realize that to understand the context you had to work for it a little bit.
Earlier today the African American Cultural Center at Chicago’s UIC shared a timely article that featured the original statistical data from of Du Bois’ sociological research. The charts, created by DuBois’ students at Atlanta University at the turn of the century, were beautifully rendered in watercolor and ink; these graphs ultimately became the point of departure for Theaster Gates’ paintings. The charts that Gates chose are not only incredible data visualizations, but they provide a statistical narrative that sheds light on the condition of black americans post Emancipation.
Reconstruction is arguably one of the least understood periods of time in U.S. history, but for African-Americans it was a period of economic growth and self sustainability which were themes that Du Bois repeatedly addressed in his writing in the early 1900s.
With respect Gates’ exhibition, his omission of the data in the paintings can be seen as a reflection of our selective omission of positive aspects of our history that run counter to damaging, stereotypical narratives that prevailed for decades. This dynamic is nothing new, especially when you consider why the statistical charts were created by Du Bois in the first place. More on that tomorrow.