Theaster Gates has been awarded the Artes Mundi 6 international contemporary art prize. The artist lives and works in Chicago, and his multi-faceted socially engaged art, that lies between sculpture, philanthropy and property development, has created a social platform for art that encompasses activism, urban regeneration and community development. Gates funds urban renewal in the economically deprived neighbourhoods of South Side Chicago, St Louis and Omaha through the sale of his artwork and reinvests the money back into these parts of city. Upon accepting the Artes Mundi award of £40,000 he announced that he would share the prize amongst his nine fellow shortlisted artists.
Gates trained as both a sculptor and an urban planner and his works are rooted in a social responsibility as well as underpinned by a deep belief system. His most ambitious project, is the ongoing real estate development, ‘The Dorchester Project’. In late 2006, Gates purchased an abandoned building on 69th and Dorchester Avenue on Chicago’s South Side, collaborating with a team of architects and designers to gut and refurbish the buildings using various kinds of found materials. The building and, subsequently, several more in its vicinity, 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” since the renovations of the buildings are financed entirely by the sale of sculptures and artworks that were created from the materials salvaged from their interiors. Information courtesy White Cube
Gates’ winning installation, A Complicated Relationship between Heaven and Earth, or When We Believe, 2014, is described as something that “contemplates how objects have been used as signifiers of power and perhaps reopens them to be real instruments for accessing belief”, challenged a Western-centric ideology of Christianity that marginalises other religious traditions. The work takes form as a series of symbolic objects that have been used as vehicles for religious transcendence in diverse cultures across the globe. These include a Malines Boli, or bull sculpture, used to deter bad spirits and protect crops in Africa; a revolving, early 20th-Century goat riding tricycle used in American Masonic initiation ceremonies; slates from the roof of Chicago’s demolished St. Laurence church, a local landmark of white catholic and black protestant tensions; and a video of Billy Sings Amazing Grace, featuring the soul singer, Billy Forston, and Gates’s gospel ensemble, The Black Monks of Mississippi. Each object is linked by a shared focus on the relationship between spirituality and labour.
Gates described critically the fetish objects associated with Masonic ritual. “There was a goat, formerly used to help men get from rather obscure and uninteresting lives to believing that they had the right, and eventually, the information to change the world. The goat had power as it was the vehicle that led to enlightenment, brotherhood, sacred passage of the Masonic Order. At some point, the goat got old and was no longer used for ritual. At that point, it was a reminder of a period of power and an abject reflection on what is possible when the world believes in things.”
“In these difficult social-political times, art that engages with social concerns offers meaning to our lives; it challenges, comforts, teaches and resists. Gate’s practice stood out for his ability to be not just an artist but an urbanist, a facilitator and a curator.” Karen Mackinnon, Artes Mundi director
“For the judges, this year’s shortlisted artists all demonstrate art’s ability to reflect on and engage with most pressing questions of human life today. Theaster’s work stood out for its inspiring combination of historical research, visual art, performance and activism.” JJ Charlesworth, Artes Mundi 6 Judging Chair
Theaster Gates has developed an expanded practice that includes space development, object making, performance and critical engagement with many publics. Founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation, Gates is currently Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago. Exhibitions and Performance: Studio Museum in Harlem, New York; Whitechapel Gallery, London; Punta della Dogana, Venice; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Santa Barbara Museum of Art; and Documenta 13, Kassel, Germany. Awards and Grants: Creative Time, the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, United States Artists, Creative Capital, the Joyce Foundation, Graham Foundation, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Artadia, and Artes Mundi
Artes Mundi identifies, recognises and supports contemporary visual artists who engage with the human condition, social reality and lived experience and is best known for its biennial international Exhibition and Prize which takes place in Cardiff.