Nasher Sculpture Center's Jed Morse on Latest Theaster Gates Exhibition, 'Afro-Mingei'
Installation view of Afro Mingei by Theaster Gates, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, 2022. Left to Right: Theaster Gates, Afro Neon, 2022, neon mounted on copper backing. Courtesy of Theaster Gates Studio; Theaster Gates, Kitsch Italian Design on the Backs of Blacks, 2018, digital screenprint on Somerset 33gsm paper. Courtesy of GRAY Gallery; Theaster Gates, Somewhere over Czechoslovakia, 2018, digital screenprint on Somerset 33gsm paper. Courtesy of GRAY Gallery; Theaster Gates, Summer Tones for a Fall Situation, 2018, digital screenprint on Somerset 33gsm paper. Courtesy of GRAY Gallery; Theaster Gates, Dorchester Industries Table #2, 2022, wood. Courtesy of Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Kevin Todora, courtesy of Nasher Sculpture Center.
Upon first glance, the concepts of African American culture and Japanese philosophy couldn’t appear more distinct from one another. However, the harmonious relationship between the two has become abundantly clear through the remarkable work of American artist Theaster Gates.
Gates is a highly-decorated social practice installation artist who has exhibited in galleries all over the globe. The Chicago native is renowned for re-imagining spaces previously left behind, drawing on his passion for urban planning and preservation.
Gates’ latest exhibition, Afro-Mingei, is currently on display at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. The project serves as a gathering space that celebrates the connection between African American culture and Japanese philosophy through food, music, and community. Through Afro-Mingei, Gates delightfully illustrates the link between cultures as one of beauty, generosity, and appreciation.
Jed Morse, Chief Curator at the Nasher Sculpture Center, worked directly with Gates to help bring the exhibit to life. Morse has described the space as a “functioning restaurant and bar [that] is seeded with all of the essential elements of Theaster’s aesthetic.” Taking time from his busy schedule. Morse sat with EDITION to express his excitement about hosting Gates’ latest project.
Artist Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates was named the Nasher Prize Laureate in 2018. What does it mean to the Nasher Sculpture Center to host his latest exhibition?
We’re thrilled to be able to do this. It’s an interesting project because it’s not a traditional exhibition. It’s really an immersive installation and a different way of thinking about how arts and culture connect with our lives. That’s obviously something Theaster has been thinking about in all of his work, whether it’s installation, sculpture, or performance, the way that we find and make meaning has been central to his work for his entire career. This was a project that he was kind of dreaming of, and when we found out about it, we offered to be a site for that experimentation. It’s really exciting to be partnering with Theaster on this.
Gates is revered for his exploration of cultural hybridity by blending African American Culture with Japanese Philosophy. Whether it be food, decoration, or community, what do you believe these two cultures have the most in common?
Theastor’s interest in both cultures is very personal. As an African American, he has deep roots in that culture. As a ceramicist who spent a lot of time in Japan and trained in Japanese ceramics tradition, he has a deep personal connection with that as well. I think the commonalities that he sees between the two really have to do with the Japanese notion of Mingei, the honoring or veneration of the simple, but beautiful things in our daily lives. For Japan, the notion of Mingei was really tied to the wares that we have around us. The teacup that we drink our tea from every day, or the table at which we eat our meals. These things are often very simple, yet we have an intimate relationship with them and they oftentimes have very palpable meaning in our lives. It’s that appreciation of the simple things in our lives that both Japanese and African American cultures honor. Particularly, things that are made by anonymous neighbors. You may not know the name of the person who made your coffee mug, or the table that you sit at, to have your breakfast. Similarly, you often don’t know the names of the laborers who may have built your house or fixed your roof. Nonetheless, it’s honoring and consciously thinking of them, even though you don’t know who they are, that I think is important.
This concept is extremely personal in a lot of Theaster’s work. His father was a roofer, and when he retired from roofing, he gave his tar bucket to Theaster, who used it in his own work to create tar paintings as a way to honor his father’s labor. Those connections about honoring the simple things, as well as the labors of unnamed artisans, is what he sees as a commonality between Japanese culture and culture.
Installation view of Afro-Mingei by Theaster Gates, Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, Texas, 2022. Theaster Gates, cups and small bowls, 2022, high fire stoneware with glaze, courtesy of Theaster Gates Studio. Photo: Kevin Todora, courtesy of Nasher Sculpture Center.
This gathering space also functions as a fully operating café. What went into designing the menu, and how do the included foods and libations reflect Gates’ message of cultural pluralism?
The spirit of the place is one of collaboration, where communities come together. That’s something that also went into the creation of the menu. The menu was a collaboration between Theaster and our chefs here at the Nasher. Theaster painted the broad brushstrokes of what he hoped the menu could communicate, and then Chef Nat came up with a really fascinating menu that uses inspirations from both African American and Japanese cultures. Everything is served in small shared plates to illustrate the sense of interacting and communicating in an intimate way. The dishes also use ingredients that are common in both Southern African American and Japanese cuisine. Some of the items on the menu include housemade pork rinds with pickled gulf shrimp, as well as poached beets with sorghum popcorn and mustard greens with Satsuma vinaigrette. The beverages are primarily tea and whiskey, whiskey being part of the African American South, but also part of an artisan tradition in Japan. All the whiskeys are Japanese whiskeys and all the teas are Japanese teas, but there is still that connection between Japan and the African American South.
Preview of the Afro-Mingei food selection
From recording an album with The Black Monks in a previous project to incorporating his collection of over 1,000 vinyl records into this one, Gates has implemented his love for music into many of his works. How has Gates’ musical passion made his projects distinct and powerful?
It's a central part of his practice and being. He lent us 1000 records from his collection, which numbers in many, many thousands. He's a collector of African American History and Culture, and he started collecting records just personally as he was growing up. As he got older, there were unfortunately a lot of businesses going under on the southside of Chicago. Wanting to help preserve the memory of those places, he ended up buying the inventory of places like Dr. Wax Records. He's also had friends bequeath their record collections onto him.
What he's done with Afro-Mingei is lend 1000 records that are primarily soul, funk, and r&b from the 60s, 70s and 80s. Also, he wanted to use Afro-Mingei as a platform for emerging artists of color. We have local DJs spinning records from Theaster’s collection every Friday and Saturday night, and a whole range of programming as well. He wanted Afro-Mingei to be an active platform for a variety of arts.
Who are some of the artists featured on this platform, and how did the center decide to highlight them, specifically?
We started thinking about what programming might be like in this intimate space in order to use it as a community gathering point and as a way to highlight emerging artists of color. We considered what Theaster had envisioned for the space, one of those things being a DJ, so we reached out and brought in local DJs. Also thinking more broadly, it's such a small, intimate space, and it really can't accommodate more than, say, 20 or 30 people, at the most. We've been working with a really fantastic programming partner, JJ Eromonsele, who has helped us conceive what we could do within the small space that also matched Theaster’s vision. He’s connected us with some really great local DJs, and we’ve also had live music as well as art talks with emerging artists of color in the space.
Last weekend we had DJ Richy Smart, who was not only playing the records from Theaster’s collection but using them to tell a story. He partnered the next day with Tre Michaels and Brandon Goodlove, who are spoken word poets and storytellers themselves. Together, they created a vibrant experience of music and poetry. We’ve had the artist Johnica Rivers come and speak about her work. Most recently, we've got Jerry Hawkins, the executive director of the Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation Project. Later on, we're going to have jazz trumpeter Gabe Parker come and play. Also, artists like Daisha Board, Jeremy Biggers and Sam Lao are set to talk in the space. It's been really fantastic to work with JJ, who has embraced Theaster’s vision for the space. He’s expanded the Nasher’s view of DJs, musicians, and artists, an area in which we don't have a lot of connections. He was incredibly thoughtful with us about the artists and art talks in the space.
Preview of the Afro-Mingei food selection
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Photography by: Courtesy of Nasher Sculpture Center