• Elena Arzani

THEASTER GATES – THE BLACK IMAGE CORPORATION


(Photo Isaac Sutton, courtesy Johnson Publishing company)

OSSERVATORIO PRADA FOUNDATION, Milan // Until 14 January 2019


Theaster Gates is one of the most influential contemporary artists in the world, living and working in Chicago, Illinois. Director of Arts and Public Life at the University of Chicago.

He began his career studying urban planning, and city design, while making pots, an activity that he developed for over 15 years, and that he describes in his TED talk as “I feel like as a potter you also start to learn how to shape the world. You very quickly learn how to make great things out of nothing.”


He then became a social practice installation artist, applying a working methodology that might resemble the Japanese technique “kintsugi” of fixing broken potteries with gold, he started to revive his neighbourhood in Chicago. His first intervention on a building has led to what nowadays is called Dorchester project, and it involves the restoration of more than 60 buildings, and consequently to the creation of new cultural communities around them.


Winner of the Nasher Prize 2018; Gates is Founder of the non-profit Rebuild Foundation, that has recently organised the exhibition “A Johnson Publishing Story” at the Stony Island Arts Bank in Chicago, after receiving a conspicuous donation of more than 15,000 items by Johnson Publishing last year, time during which the company moved out of its iconic Michigan Avenue headquarters.


“A Johnson Publishing Story” is associated with “The Black Image Corporation” exhibition on show at Osservatorio Fondazione Prada, Milan Italy, until 14 January 2019. It celebrates the influential publisher of Jet and Ebony, the two historical periodicals focused on African-American culture, that held dominance in their field since 1942, playing a crucial role in defining the identity and aesthetic of black culture. They are of particular importance when trying to understand changes within society in the post-war, delivering their messages to national and international audiences in the mid-20th century. Inside the rooms of the Prada Foundation, Gates has reconstructed Johnson’s environments. A selection of some large-format images, on which he has added his personal artistic finishing, contact sheets, and structures that contain photographs that the public can take and reposition. A series of auditions and the original numbers of the magazines, a graphic carpet, plus original sofas, and furnishings are all key elements of a full immersion in the visual lexicon of the Chicago Office, as well as the iconography that contributed to shaping the identity of the black culture.

“For this show, I hope to tease out the creation of female iconic moments by Sleet and Sutton – says Theaster Gates – and also offer small forays into the lives of everyday people through never-before-seen images from the Johnson Collection. The archives speak about beauty and black female power. Today, it seems to me, a good time to investigate the visual lexicon of the American book and show images that are rarely seen outside of my community. I wanted to celebrate women of all kinds and especially black women.”


Theaster Gates plays a crucial role in the delivery of the Johnson Publishing story, whilst his contribution to the global art scene has brought attention to those areas that had not been previously explored. Therefore the project which is seen from his perspective becomes even more coherent within his practice in social arts as his work involves engaging local people in social exchange and creating a better environment for them to live in. It is indeed an expansion of his constant dialogue with society and communities that creates a sense of awareness and humanism.

The Black Image Corporations work portray African Americans as they have never appeared before in white magazines. The publications became a powerful source of information, yet inspirational at the time, both from a social and political perspective.  “These magazines,” says Gates, “ helped the blacks to think if you were big and this is the precondition because then they could really be great … Those who thought these newspapers told us: this is what some of us do, so many others can do it.”


by Elena Arzani


Fondazione Prada Osservatorio, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, 20121 MILAN

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