Image of My Labor is My Protest by Theaster Gates
Theaster Gates, My Labor is My Protest. Photo © Dr Jim Roseblade

Theaster Gates

Works exhibited: My Labor is My Protest.

Theaster Gates is a black American artist whose work is predicated on crossing the boundary between the art world and the living conditions of people in the black diaspora. My Labor is My Protest has become one of his signature works that epitomises the subject matter, the nature of the materials, and the methods of identifying, framing, archiving and curating the kinds of objects that he places at the centre of his practice.

The decommissioned Hahn fire truck now standing in Second Court has not only been reclaimed for the purposes of art, it has also been reclaimed from a devastating secondary use as a weapon of war in the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States.

In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, high pressure hoses were first turned on black protestors in a peaceful demonstration against possibly the most discriminatory civil code in the American south. The famous photograph by Charles Moore showing three high school students taking the full force of a fire hose cannonade was published in Life magazine, under the equally famous caption ‘They fight a fire that won’t go out.’

In Gates’ presentation, the truck is daubed with tar, a substance that carries a range of associations: tarring and feathering, originally a form of vigilante punishment, was used for scapegoating purposes against black people in the first half of the 20th century. The ‘tar baby’, originally a figure in the Uncle Remus stories (reclaimed by Toni Morrison in her novel of the same name), was a pejorative term formerly used by whites to refer to black children.

In practical terms, tar is most commonly used in roofing and boat building as a preservative and sealant. Strangely enough, it is this latter use that Gates is foregrounding in his application of tar to a fire truck, as the accompanying video helps to make clear.

In the Chicago Riots of 1968, triggered by the assassination of Martin Luther King (who had been the key figure in the 1963 Birmingham protests), the metaphorical ‘fire that won’t go out’ was literalised to an extent that devastated several city blocks. Gates’s father chose to be literally constructive in this moment, creating a measure of social agency for himself out of a prejudicial environment by tarring roofs for a living. This activity has had a long term influence on Gates’ own work and attitudes.

Choosing construction as a form of critical activity – ‘my labor is my protest’ – Gates has linked his art making to a number of community projects, both conceptually and economically. The capital raised by his arthouse sales contributes to the revaluing of living and working conditions in Chicago’s South Side and elsewhere. And the link between the art making and the community projects is cemented by an ethics of collaboration.

In the video that accompanies his installation, Gates and his father can be seen and heard turning the process of daubing the truck with tar into a calm ritual that both evokes and brings into being the spirit of cooperation, in the company of musicians who refer back to the work songs of black music history in the very act of transforming them.

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