The exhibition at Kunsthaus Bregenz is Theaster Gates‘ first institutional solo exhibition in Europe. For several years he has been acquiring historical figures that depict Afro-Americans in a stereotypical manner. This collection of so-called “Negrobilia” portrays devoted servants, friendly mamas, and dancing slaves; with protruding lips, curly hair, and ample behinds. Gates is concerned with the gaze, together with projected and perceived identity. “For me, the collection serves as a reminder of a history and a catalyst for ongoing examination,” he comments.
The head of the black baby doll is only a few centimeters high. The eyes are deep set, her gaze apparently forlorn; arms, torso, and legs remain hidden under the fabric of the pincushion. Theaster Gates has blown up the tiny neckless figure to a hugely oversized work. It addresses issues of what being black means.
On the ground floor, a video of Shirley Temple that Gates has reedited, is being screened. In a scene from The Littlest Rebel, black actor Bill “Bojangles” Robinson dances on some stairs, the white girl imitating his virtuoso footsteps, in another they both tap dance on the street to earn money.
A statue of St. Lawrence is on display on the first floor, which was rescued from an abandoned church next to Gates’ Chicago studio. He is also showing several tar works, which set themselves off against the gray walls of the Kunsthaus Bregenz as gloomy icons reminiscent of poorly constructed dwellings, poverty, and damaged lives.
The Dancing Minstrel on the third floor originates from 19th century burlesque revues. Enlarged to more than four meters high, it is an interactive sculpture dangling from the ceiling, visitors themselves being obliged to dance to activate it.
Once more Theaster Gates succeeds in transporting a centuries long American subject to issues currently relevant to Europe.