FEATURE: Famed U.S. artist Gates melds Black, Japanese cultures in Tokyo show

U.S. contemporary artist Theaster Gates says his first solo exhibition in Japan is a culmination of years of influence the Asian nation has had on work he has rooted in distinct African American history and culture.

In the largest-ever solo exhibition in Japan by a Black artist, Gates explores the idea of cultural hybridity, while weaving in the ceramic legacy of the Japanese coastal city of Tokoname where the Chicago native lived and studied pottery and from which he now hopes to spark young talent.

“I’ve been nurturing these relationships (with Japan) for a long time. And it feels like it’s a homecoming,” the 50-year-old said at an event in late April attended by U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel. The exhibition runs through Sept. 1 at Mori Art Museum in Tokyo.

Considered one of the world’s most influential living contemporary artists, Gates, who also trained as a sculptor and urban planner, employs a wide range of expressions from sculpture and installations to music, with his famous works including projects to revitalize the underserved Black neighborhoods of Chicago’s South Side by transforming abandoned buildings into art and community spaces.

U.S. artist Theaster Gates speaks at an event at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Japan in Tokyo on April 24, 2024. (Kyodo)

Despite his strong Chicago roots, Gates has considered Tokoname in Aichi Prefecture in central Japan the place where his modern ceramics techniques spawned, having joined in 2004 the city’s pottery homestay program for overseas artists.

“It was really life-changing,” Gates recalled of his impression of staying in Tokoname in a recent interview with media, touching on his time in homestay with a Japanese dairy farmer, which contrasted starkly with his previous experiences, as well as his interactions with many potters who “worked all day and all night.”

“Skill wasn’t imparted, no one exactly trained me,” he said, adding, “I was around greatness. I was around hard workers. And I wanted to be hardworking and great — not great in a superstar artist kind of way — but I wanted to have self-assurance that the thing I was doing was the thing I know I am supposed to do.”

“Tokoname helped give me that,” he said.

The exhibition in Tokyo is titled “Afro-Mingei,” a term Gates has coined to give form to a concept he has been examining through his encounter with Japan as a Black artist, with “mingei” meaning folk crafts in Japanese.

Afro-Mingei is a “testament to what happens when a person yields themselves to the possibilities of cultural influence through making and friendship,” Gates said in a written message presented at the museum.

Supplied photo taken by Koroda Takeru shows Black Vessels for Doric Temple (2022-2023), and others, an installation view from Theaster Gates: Afro-Mingei at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Mori Art Museum)(Kyodo)

While the Mingei movement developed in the 1920s to recognize the beauty of ordinary objects made by unknown artisans, Gates sees it as cultural “resistance” amid Westernization and industrialization, akin to the “Black is Beautiful” movement from the 1960s in the United States that challenged Eurocentric beauty standards by embracing natural Black features such as the afro hairstyle.

Mingei is also about giving thoughts to “other countries that contributed to the creativity and artisanal wellspring of Japan,” Gates said, noting that he has no intention to overlook the controversial aspects in the history of Japanese pottery which advanced through the forced transport of skilled Korean potters to Japan during invasions of Korea by the 16th-century warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

On display are works representing Black American consciousness, including a Hammond B3 electric organ, a fixture in Black churches as an accessible alternative to the pipe organ, and a tapestry made from decommissioned fire hoses to reference how police used high-pressure fire hoses to disperse peaceful protestors who in the 1960s were a part of the American civil rights movement.

At the same time, Gates brings in other cultural elements explicitly and implicitly throughout the show, as seen through vessels that evoke African, Japanese, Korean and Chinese ceramic traditions and were made in Chicago in a kiln similar to the “anagama” cellar kilns in Tokoname.

Black bricks made in Tokoname cover the floor of a gallery, which is meant to connect the Japanese city’s history of producing industrial ceramics with the history of America’s many enslaved people of color who worked as bricklayers.

With Gates also known as an archivist, one section of the exhibition recreates a library on Black history and culture and another shows a collection of 20,000 ceramic objects by late Tokoname potter Yoshihiro Koide, which Gates plans to take to Chicago after the exhibition ends, with many stacked up and wrapped in newspapers.

Supplied photo taken by Koroda Takeru shows The Koide Yoshihiro Collection (1941-2022), and others, an installation view from Theaster Gates: Afro-Mingei at Mori Art Museum, Tokyo, 2024. (Photo courtesy of Mori Art Museum)(Kyodo)

A bar-like atmosphere emerges at the end of the exhibition, as a sparkling iceberg-shaped sculpture rotates at the center of the area like a disco ball and 1,000 Japanese refillable sake bottles made out of ceramics line a nearby shelf.

Even after gaining prominence as an artist, Gates said he is committed to Tokoname and expressed hope to play a role in raising the profile of the city, which he views as less known compared with the other major ceramic production sites across Japan.

Tokoname, located some 40 kilometers south of Nagoya, is home to one of Japan’s six ancient kilns, each with a history that dates back to medieval times. But rapid industrialization and increased demand for mass-produced wares hit its ceramic industry hard, leaving artisans to produce only about one-third of the amount that was produced in its heyday, according to the exhibition’s explanatory text.

Gates has made ceramics in Tokoname, with the support of potters there, and also collaborated with local businesses, creating sake labeled “Mon,” meaning gates in Japanese, with a long-established brewery.

Gates suggested young people who are learning contemporary art and traditional crafts of Tokoname also want to have art exhibitions and gallery representation to build their profile worldwide.

“Japanese ceramics is growing, you know, in representation outside of Japan. So I think I want to be a part of amplifying young Tokoname potters,” Gates told the U.S. ambassador, a former Chicago mayor, who has continued to support the artist’s work.

“Now that I’m old,” Gates said with a laugh, “I feel like I’m ready to actually pivot from needing the attention to supporting others.”

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