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Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon review

Art Whitechapel Gallery , Whitechapel Until Sunday January 9 2022 Free
4 out of 5 stars
Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)
Theaster Gates © Theaster Gates Photo © White Cube (Theo Christelis)

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Theaster Gates is going to hit you like a ton of bricks. The American artist’s show here acts as a mini history of ceramics, and that comes with a lot of bricks, and a lot of weight: both metaphorical and physical.

The show’s split in two, with a traditional sculpture layout upstairs and a more archival approach as you come in. It opens with four big cabinets. One is filled with historical ceramics from around the world, symbols of global trade. The next with objects leaden with colonial and racist implications; dancing black boys, grinning black faces. The other two are laid out with works by Gates and the ceramicists who influence him; all beautiful minimalism and modernism, cracked glazes and sombre tones.

The rest of the space is all piles of bricks - a material he has used in the past to rebuild deprived areas of his native Chicago - and reams of information on clay and firing temperatures. 

He’s essentially setting you up for what’s to come upstairs. He’s saying that clay has a past, that it’s part of the global history of trade, that it was used to perpetuate racism, that it’s an intrinsic part of countless visual cultures, that it builds homes and jails, etc. etc. etc. 

He’s saying that he understands this material’s meaning and power, and he wants you to as well. 

Because at first glance, the sculptures upstairs look a, a bit traditional, and maybe a tad boring. It’s so classically ‘modern’ it could be from 1930, it could be Brancusi or Giacometti. 

But because of how he’s set you up, Gates’ exhibition emphasises clay’s context over the sculptural results. So when you’re looking at his pots filled with tar, or his glistening glazed masks, you’re doing it with all this ceramic history that he’s set bubbling in your brain. The bulbous orbs nod to Louise Bourgeois, the seats hat tip to West African ceremonial stools, the spiked tower is part-Benin bronze part-Duchampian bottle rack. 

They’re beautiful things, overflowing with history and context and ideas. No pot here is just a pot, and no brick just a brick, but they all hit you pretty hard anyways. 


Venue name: Whitechapel Gallery
Venue website:
Venue phone: 020 7522 7888
Address: 77-82 Whitechapel High St
E1 7QX
Transport: Tube: Aldgate East
Price: Free

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