Theaster Gates, “The Black Madonna”

by Nora McCready

On Tuesday, March 20, Theaster Gates gave a talk discussing his current project, “The Black Madonna.” The talk was organized by Art Speaks, an organization created by DHC/ART, and took place at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montreal.

Gates is a multidisciplinary artist, urban planner, and community activist. In one of his most famous projects, Gates used abandoned buildings in Chicago as medium for sculpture. He then directed the profits from these works into rehabilitating the neighborhoods around them.

Gates wore a tall felt hat throughout the presentation, the brim tilted towards the audience. His face was barely discernible, however, his voice welcomed listeners into private monologues marked by humor, curiosity and insight.

The presentation was, appropriately, multidisciplinary. Gates employed prose, poetry, image and film to illustrate the project, which I can only attempt to describe as a spiraling prayer to a Black female deity who has been neglected and forgotten by art and history.

Gates began by talking about the statues and paintings of Black Madonnas across Europe. In this context, a Black Madonna is a classical representation of the Madonna depicted with dark skin. There are an estimated 400-500 Black Madonnas on the European continent. One of the most famous is in Poland, titled “Our Lady of Czestochowa.” It is fabled that the Madonna’s skin became Black through a miraculous experience, but Gates emphasized that there are many varieties of stories contextualizing the European Black Madonnas and that no single narrative dominates. Gates is interested in how art and religious history have forgotten these Black Madonnas, while certain communities have kept the Cult of the Black Madonna alive through worship.

Gates then showed a series of images from the archives of Ebony and Jet Magazine. The photos depict Black women posing to emphasize their clothes or makeup or hairstyles. Viewing these images so many years after publication distances them from their commerciality. Something engrained within them is revealed – a celebration of Black femininity that accompanies what Gates characterizes as the power of the Black female deity; these images take their place within the Cult of the Black Madonna. It seems, according to Gates, that any image of a Black woman can obtain this classification if it has some unspecified power – perhaps beauty, perhaps anger, perhaps the simple suspicion that the image isn’t just the sum of its parts.

Gates is working with a graphic design firm in Chicago to reinvent these photos. Colorful geometric patterns are imposed over parts of photographs, and logos referencing Gates and the project decorate the images.

Gates connected these two embodiments of the Cult of the Black Madonna through the idea of resurrection: both collections of images have been forgotten, and some of the photos from the Ebony and Jet archives were never actually seen by the public prior to this project.

Gates further interrogates the resurrection of the Cult of the Black Madonna with his acquisition of the Heidelberg windmill printing press, which he found in a town called Boswell, Indiana. Gates showed a short video which depicts the Heidelberg’s long and interlaced black appendages and meticulous moving parts. This piece of machinery is large and black and bestowed with the divine power to print words and images – things that have long been the subject of worship. However, the Heidelberg’s power can only be exercised with knowledge of outdated technology, knowledge that is nearly extinct, but valiantly preserved by a dedicated man in Boswell. Gates is using the machine for printing images in “The Black Madonna,” and characterizes the Heidelberg as an incarnation of the Black Madonna, divine and resurrected for creating art.

Along these lines is another sub-project in which Gates renames titles of books. The books are published uniformly, with black covers and white titles on the spines. The titles are meant to be read continuously, as one would read lines of a poem. Gates performed this aspect of the project, reading new titles of old works, which began to relate to one another in unexpected ways through his vocal emphasis and expression.

In many ways, the talk felt like a rough draft of the project, with Gates exploring thoughts about his work in front of the audience. Nothing was concrete – all was open to interpretation, as if the talk itself was an art exhibition. The project, although vast and meandering, is effective because it accomplishes what is sets out to do – resurrect. Even the slideshow Gates used felt like it was alive. Old images contrasted with the voices of contemporary singers, their eyes staring into the camera. It is a reminder of this long tradition of worship and a recognition that this is an ongoing prayer.

“The Black Madonna” will be exhibited in four museums across Europe in the coming year: Kunstmuseum, Basel, Switzerland (June 9-October 21, 2018); Sprengel Museum, Kurt Schwitters Prize Exhibition, Hannover, Germany (June 22, 2018); Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy (September 2018-January 2019); and Haus der Kunst, Munich, Germany (October 2018). 

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