A DENSE GATHERING of mostly African Americans, well-dressed for a day of mourning, covers the fall 2020 edition of Gagosian Quarterly. The black-and-white photograph is by Moneta Sleet Jr. (1926-1996), a bird’s eye view captured at the public funeral of Martin Luther King Jr., in April 1968.
The photograph is part of the Black Image Corporation, a conceptual project Theaster Gates formed with selections from the Johnson Publishing Archive. Established by the Black-owned company that published Ebony and Jet magazines, the archive of millions of images, mostly unpublished, dates back to the mid-20th century.
In advance of “Black Vessel,” his upcoming fall exhibition at Gagosian, his first-ever solo show in New York, Gates spoke to Louise Neri, a director at Gagosian, about the Black Image Corporation.
Photo by Moneta Sleet Jr., 1968 | Gagosian Quarterly, Fall 2020
The work of Chicago-based Gates is multifaceted. He’s a land developer and social entrepreneur who focuses on sculpture and performance. His works and activities pay homage to Black creativity and Black history. At its core, his practice is about preserving and collecting images, objects, materials, and spaces. He gives them new life and new intellectual consideration, elevated platforms, and broader regard.
Gates gained access to the images that would form the Black Image Corporation prior to the dissolution of Johnson Publishing Corporation and the subsequent acquisition of the archive by a consortium of four foundations last year.
In the conversation published in Gagosian Quarterly, Gates told Neri he obtained permission to use 20,000 images from the archive. Each can be reproduced once “at his artistic discretion.” He said he has used about 5,000 thus far.
“To the outside world, the collection may have seemed to be in peril, but to me the photographic images were waiting on their next life—not as historical inventory to a contemporary publishing company but as extraordinarily valuable images that would reaffirm the power of both Black identity and Black business,” Gates said.
“To the outside world, the collection may have seemed to be in peril, but to me the photographic images were waiting on their next life…” — Theaster Gates
The Johnson Publishing Archive contains the work of numerous photographers. The cache Gates chose focuses on two image makers who were Ebony magazine staff photographers: Isaac Sutton (1923-1995) and Sleet, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize in a journalism category. (Sleet was recognized for feature photography in 1969.)
“Sleet and Sutton captured some of the most potent and searing images of Black political life. While thinking about the hope represented by Black beauty and fashion, between them they photographed some of the most beautiful and radically elegant women in the world,” Gates said to Neri.
He continued: “…my choice of images focused primarily on Black women, femininity, the workplace, mothers, anomalies within the feminine, drag culture (1950s cross-dressers and the trans ballroom scene), and the idea of sacredness within the image itself, all under the unifying concept of ‘Black Madonna.’”
The artist’s “Black Image Corporation” exhibition opened at the Prada Foundation in Milan in 2018. The show has also been presented at Gropius Bau in Berlin, and most recently, at Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta, earlier this year. Gates has also incorporated the historic photographs in related exhibitions, including “Black Chapel” at Haus Der Kunst in Munich, Germany, and “Black Madonna” at Kunstmuseum Basel in Switzerland.
Neri asked Gates whether there is a connection between the Black Image Corporation and his forthcoming “Black Vessel” exhibition. There is, he said. The relationship is the thread of history, agency, and cultural recognition that persists throughout his practice.
“Black Image Corporation and Black Vessel have legal structures that help substantiate and legitimize, respectively, the reproduction of images and the activity of brick manufacturing. I take this work very seriously. It’s also significant to me that both projects engage the ways in which gathering, convening, or cooperation allows for a more ambitious activity to occur, one that goes beyond the actions of a single individual,” Gates said.
“Finally, Black Image Corporation and Black Vessel deal with histories that have both national nostalgia and individual sentimentality—using the core memories of, say, looking at a Jet magazine or playing with mud in Mississippi to exhume a conceptual foundation.” CT
FIND MORE About Theaster Gates on his website
WATCH MORE See preview video for Theaster Gates’s “Black Vessel” exhibition
READ MORE of the full conversation between Theaster Gates and Louis Neri
FIND MORE View the entire fall 2020 edition of Gagosian Quarterly, which also featured poetry co-authored by artist Titus Kaphar and novelist Tochi Onyebuchi and a conversation between choreographers Bebe Miller and Cynthia Oliver
A special book project was published to accompany the “Black Image Corporation” exhibition. Now out of print, it featured a publication (with an introduction by Theaster Gates and a conversation between the artist and Linda Johnson Rice of Johnson Publishing) housed in a box with image reproductions, cards and vellums. “Theaster Gates: Black Madonna” documented his exhibition at Kunstmuseum Basel. Also consider, “Theaster Gates” from Phaidon, “Theaster Gates: Black Archive,” and “Theaster Gates: How to Build a House Museum.” Published earlier this year, “Theaster Gates: Every Square Needs a Circle” documents a recent exhibition at Richard Gray Gallery’s Warehouse space in Chicago. The artist presented new installations, sculpture, neon works, and tar paintings that engaged with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. In the volume, Gates “offers a rumination on Black economies and empire building, relating to moments from art history and stories of quotidian labor.”
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