Quasi-scientific paintings, house music, sculptures, and minimalistic performances are among the elements Theaster Gates uses to promote his first solo exhibition in Canada. How to Build a House Museum is located on the fifth floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario.
The 38-year-old founder of the non-profit Rebuild Organization is currently based in Chicago. Awarded a Bachelor’s degree in urban planning and ceramics, Gates’ initial work was with pottery, an art that inspired his later projects. Notably in his Dorchester Projects, Gates restores and repurposes abandoned buildings in Chicago’s South Side. He transforms these houses into community spaces, such as libraries. On a more philosophical note, Gates creates hope where nothing is left. He employs elements of the Dorchester Projects in How to Build a House Museum.
The elevator doors open on the floor of Gates’ exhibition. Immediately, I enter through the doors of a big house known as “Negro Progress.” The lighting is dim in the first room. A black board amid the black walls captures all attention with the words written on it. Gates’ writing informs visitors of his mission with the exhibition: “Unapologetic liberation of black people through active movement and practices of insurrection.”
In a corner lies one clay diorama depicting slavery. “The pain of servitude,” Gates explains. Next to the door are the bones of a monastery Gates plans to rebuild for one of his upcoming projects. Gates doesn’t let me exit without flipping through the books on the couches in the middle of the room. Letters of Negro Progress reads the title of one book.
A narrow hallway leads me to a bigger room. Hanging on one wall is a huge painting containing nothing but the colour black. Four black squares glued unevenly together stick confidently to the canvas. The painting is strong and uniting.
I walk towards another wall that holds abstract paintings of a scientific theme. About 12 of these paintings hang throughout the room. Blue, yellow, green, brown, black, and red are among the colours of the paintings. However, black is the central shade.
In the middle of one hall rests the audio equipment of Frankie Knuckles, an iconic American DJ referred to as “The Godfather of House.” Gates places a black-and-white portrait of Knuckles amid the equipment. I recall Gates’ message at the front of the house: “Wherever liberation is, this is where your house is.” The remainder of the house includes paintings and writing by other iconic Black figures, such as Kerry Marshall.
Another room contains Gates’ proposal to rehabilitate the house of Muddy Waters, a Chicago blues musician. “We pray that the building remains,” Gates writes. He continues to call Waters’ house “a healing song”. In the past, Waters’ house was a venue where young musicians were able to practice their sound. Gates wishes to preserve this legacy.
In the “Progress Palace,” Gates invites visitors to be themselves. He encourages us to dance and shout as we wish. The room includes a revolving disco ball and music videos projected on the walls. Many visitors around me were silent as they watched their surroundings. A few people danced along to the steps shown in the music video. We were all completely transfixed in the experience.
Unfortunately, I did not have the opportunity to meet Gates. But meeting his work was an appropriate substitute. Gates lives in every room of his exhibition, rebelling with his craft. His ambitious cause for Black progress is present in How to Build a House Museum. Art and history collaborate strongly in this display, creating a revolution right before our eyes.