Theaster Gates: AmalgamTate Liverpool 1/2/20
Mankind is capable of doing terrible things. At the turn of the 20th Century, a small, mixed-race community living on a 42-acre island called Malaga, situated off the coast of Maine in the USA, was forcibly evicted by the state with less than a fortnight’s notice. The uprooting of this community was driven by abhorrent proponents of the eugenics movement (deeming some islanders to be “intellectually unstable” because of their interraciality), and the lucrative prospect of a Coney Island-style tourist destination. To this day, however, the island remains deserted.
A leading light of the art world, THEASTER GATES straddles many a métier; artist, ceramicist, urban planner, university lecturer, community organiser and band member to list a few. At Tate Liverpool, for his first solo exhibition in the UK, the Chicagoan polymath presents a breadth of sculpture, artefact and a film inspired by the small island of Malaga: a harrowing and widely unknown splinter of American history.
Taking up the entire top floor of Tate Liverpool, there’s a lot to decipher in Amalgam. Gates’ response to the island’s tragic truth explores the hybridisation of art forms, a metaphorical depiction of the island as an amalgamation itself, with its variety of non-native trees, unique microclimate and the mixed-heritage community who lived there. Neat piles of fused artistic practices are arranged around the space: planed blocks of wood, compressed earth and rocks are deftly stacked. Bronze masks sink in tar, and huge cement blocks push out metal rods. Glass cases of artefacts are presented in a museum like fashion, with archival intent.
A black slate wedge staggers out of the ground like an island itself, a reimagined home of Malaga. Next to it a pile of broken roof tiles, with a spinning neon ‘Malaga’ atop, glows with implied destruction. Behind, a visible chronology is scrawled on a blackboard situating Malaga among the wider history of black and interracial people in the US and UK. From civil rights laws to the transatlantic slave trade its chalk notations provide an inextricable connection to Liverpool’s slaving history.
Dance Of Malaga (2019) is an evocative narrative gleaned from old photographs, footage and music. The 35-minute film is deeply affecting, oscillating from life to death and love to pain through its blend of imagery. The lithe and sensual shapes of choreographer Kyle Abraham in the dark mossy forest of Malaga is spliced with crassly sensationalised news reports of mixed-race families living their normal lives. Conceptually it explores ideological hybridity and poses questions about what we know about interracial communities. As a chilling interlude of Douglas Sirk’s 1959 film Imitation of Life gives way to a lulling a cappella from a member of Gates’ own musical collective, The Black Monks, it is apparent that racial identity is much more complicated than the language used to ‘define’ it.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a propulsive sound piece which ebbs through each of the final three rooms. The haunting score is a swelling lament of sounds; lapping waves, chiming bells, futuristic gospel. A totemic forest of ash trees, whittled down to squared off spikes, are stood in rows, some displaying bronze casts of African masks. The raised floor in the boxy space suffuses us in reverb – an unburdening, electrical surfeit of emotion and a lasting, empowering testimony to the community of Malaga and the emancipation of an untold history. An accompanying quote seemed to resonate profoundly well with the final room; “Somewhere in the death of a tree is the truth of its strength.”