Theaster Gates and a gospel choir engage a slave potter's legacy at the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Theaster Gates first learned about David Drake while studying urban planning and ceramics at Iowa State University. Born around 1800, Drake—often simply referred to as Dave—was a South Carolinian slave who became a master potter, making practical, beautiful vessels such as an 1858 storage jar, which appears in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s exhibition “Theaster Gates: To Speculate Darkly,” opening Friday 16.
As a black artist, Gates was feeling “disconnected from American ceramics” when he found Dave, he recalls during a recent phone conversation. The 36-year-old Garfield Park native is the University of Chicago’s coordinator of arts programming; he’s also a rising art star with an installation in the 2010 Whitney Biennial. In college, Gates couldn’t link his practice to African ceramics, either. “The religious practices and the use of the pots—it would be as unfamiliar to me as these white-boy pots from the ’60s,” he says. Dave intrigued Gates because he was the first African-American potter to sign his work. And at a time when it was dangerous, even illegal, for slaves to be literate, Dave wrote poetry and decorated his vessels with poignant couplets such as, “I wonder where is all my relations / Friendship to all and every nation.”
Ethan Lasser, a curator at the Wisconsin-based Chipstone Foundation, asked Gates to collaborate on a Dave exhibition after viewing a performance “where I had embodied Dave and was singing from my [potter’s] wheel a narrative that I invented about his life,” Gates explains. (The Chipstone Foundation and MAM have collaborated on American decorative arts shows since 1999.)
Instead of focusing solely on the ceramics by Dave that would be on display, Gates decided to tackle “the history of craft labor in the U.S.” To prepare, he completed a monthlong artist’s residency at Wisconsin’s Kohler Company. Involving Kohler in his project helped Gates fulfill the Chipstone Foundation and MAM’s request to attract new audiences to the museum. While the two institutions had black visitors in mind, “I was feeling like maybe the white working class in Milwaukee didn’t use the museum as much as they could,” he says. “Regional Wisconsiners wouldn’t, either.” The artist spent much of his Kohler residency talking to factory workers, some of whose families had been with the company for generations. The men gave him advice about making ceramics and helped him produce audio speakers made from Kohler sinks for his MAM show.
Gates considers the functionality of Kohler’s sinks and tubs comparable to that of Dave’s storage vessels—before they became museum pieces worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I wanted Dave to come to Kohler and design a new body of work,” the artist says. “What would Dave do, having access to these production processes?”
As he questioned Kohler’s employees about their work, Gates found that they, like Dave, regarded it as more than a job. “They innovate all the time as a result of doing the same thing over and over and wanting to do it better,” he says. “They feel quite strongly about making good products.”
Gates reached out to Milwaukee’s black community as well—in a typically collaborative and spectacular fashion. On Friday 16 at 8:30pm, a 250-person gospel choir assembled from local churches sings music from a hymnal Gates composed in response to Dave’s poems. (Afterward, a recording of the choir will play in the gallery along with videos of Gates’s performances and the choir’s rehearsals.)
A ceiling constructed from glass magic-lantern slides depicts ceramics and other so-called minor arts from around the world: the work Gates studied before he “found a brother.” It took him a long time to feel comfortable focusing on another black artist, he admits, until he realized, “I have the right to talk about Dave as a craftsman, his blackness and the scarcity of named black potters in the world.”
“Theaster Gates: To Speculate Darkly” opens at the Milwaukee Art Museum Friday 16, 5–11pm.