The work of Theaster Gates addresses social engagement using shared images of American life as a way to challenge cultural norms and to subvert singular readings of American history. White Cube Bermondsey is hosting a major installation by the Chicago-based artist, entitled “My Labor is My Protest.” Blending the cultural, social and personal, the show is a bold statement on the roles of identity and meaning in the construction of history and art history.
Standing at the nexus of archive, installation and political statement, “My Labor is My Protest” appropriates communal imagery in service of its role in the Civil Rights protests and police suppression during the 1960s. Taking two firetrucks from that decade in the work (which would have been used to violently dismiss protesters), Gates smears them with tar, a heavily symbolic substance that combines his father’s work as a roofer with the politically violent and racist connotations the word has taken on in the annals of American history. Staining these trucks, Gates forces socio-political interpretation and dialogue.
In another room, Gates has collected a full library of books from Johnson Publishing Company, the makers of Ebony Magazine. Exhibiting a long and detailed history of African-American culture and identity, the library stands as a secondary approach to protest and activism: that of commercial and entrepreneurial activism.
Alongside these larger works is a selection of smaller works incorporating tar, magazine covers and ready-made items, furthering the contextual significance of these images in the history of African-American Civil Rights.
Embracing, broadening and expanding the notions of installation art and practice, “My Labor is My Protest” becomes an exploration of meanings, providing a textured reading of shared and official histories, as well as a view into the role cultural production plays as a form of activism.
The show is on view until November 11th, 2012.