Now open: "Theaster Gates: The Gift and the Renege" at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

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Now open: "Theaster Gates: The Gift and the Renege" at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston
Theaster Gates, Nation Building (2024). Courtesy of Theaster Gates Studio and Walla Walla Foundry.

HOUSTON, TX.- Theaster Gates: The Gift and The Renege is now open at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston through October 20, 2024, featuring new and recent large-scale paintings, sculptures, and installations that highlight the seen and unseen dynamics of historically marginalized communities.

Houston’s Mother Ward, Freedmen’s Town in Fourth Ward is a community first built by newly freed Black people, who formed a thriving community anchored by handmade and laid brick streets. Described as “the crown jewel of the Emancipation Trail,” Freedmen’s Town is a primary Black cultural landmark that includes seven sites recognized by the UNESCO Routes of Enslaved Peoples Project. This once vibrant neighborhood has faced decades of disruptions, with loss of land, history, and infrastructure, including the partial destruction of its historic hand-made brick streets. Today, the remaining brick streets serve as an enduring reminder of the possibility of Black places.

To reimagine this possibility of place, CAMH and Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy (HFTC) have taken on a multi-year project called Rebirth in Action. The first part of this project resulted in local artist residencies (CAMHLAB in Freedmen’s Town), fellowships, and a group show of 12 Houston-based artists at CAMH titled THIS WAY: A Houston Group Show. “The continuation of Rebirth in Action through The Gift and The Renege creates a platform for Theaster Gates to elevate the history and future of Freedmen’s Town and neighborhoods like it across the United States,” says CAMH Executive Director Hesse McGraw. “For CAMH, this exhibition presents the unique opportunity for the Museum to work beyond our walls in collaboration with the Freedmen’s Town community to realize a long-awaited preservation effort that bridges art, infrastructure, and community rebirth.”

"The Gift and The Renege is my sculptural attempt to demonstrate the ways that industrial landscapes, displacement, and the historical fight for land rights push the boundaries of modernist and formalist architectural approaches in my practice,” said Theaster Gates. “The opportunity to work closely with CAMH, Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, conservationists, and residents of the Fourth Ward to honor these historic bricks, laden with complex American historical narratives, to deepen our understanding of race and the land has been a privilege.”

Gates is deeply committed to supporting the preservation and growth of overlooked Black neighborhoods. His work takes the form of a kind of urban alchemy that both reframes longstanding tensions between municipal policy and a community’s desire for self-determination and offers a powerful reminder of the necessity of persistence and creativity. His work powerfully highlights the true value Black spaces hold—although often devalued—as sites of American resilience, liberation, and redemption. Gates is a shape-shifter, a world-builder, and an artist who singularly connects the dots in both poetic and pragmatic ways.

“We are honored to work with Theaster on The Gift and The Renege, and a long-term project that allows for deep community engagement that aids in finding new strategies to return the bricks to their home,” says Senior Curator and Director of Public Initiatives, Ryan N. Dennis. “Theaster is an artist who understands complex city challenges and uniquely situates art, Black life, and history at the center of the conversation. To see the way this initiative has taken shape, in dialogue with Theaster on how to pivot to accommodate changes we can’t control and respond to various scenarios, has been a grounding point for the exhibition and project as a whole. We are looking forward to seeing how our work continues to evolve and the conversations we are able to have through this process.”

Gates’s work has previously exhibited at CAMH in Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft in 2010, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art in 2013, and The Dirty South: Contemporary Art, Material Culture, and the Sonic Impulse in 2021. The Gift and The Renege marks the artist’s first solo exhibition at the Museum. Gates will return in Fall 2024 to lead his annual Black Artists Retreat (B.A.R.) held in Houston for the first time. More information about this event will be forthcoming.

Theaster Gates: The Gift and The Renege was developed throughout the planning and engagement process of Rebirth in Action, and is organized by Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and co-curated by Ryan N. Dennis, Senior Curator and Director of Public Initiatives, and Hesse McGraw, Executive Director.

Theaster Gates (b. 1973) is an artist and social innovator who lives and works in Chicago. Over the past decade, Gates has translated the intricacies of Blackness through space theory and land development, sculpture, and performance. Through the expansiveness of his approach as a thinker, maker, and builder, he extends the role of the artist as an agent of change. His performance practice and visual work find roots in Black knowledge, objects, history, and archives.

Gates has exhibited and performed at The LUMA Foundation, Arles, France (2023); The New Museum, New York, (2022); The Aichi Triennial, Tokoname (2022); The Serpentine Pavilion, London (2022); The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK (2021); Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK (2013 and 2021); Tate Liverpool, UK (2020). In 2010, Gates created the Rebuild Foundation, a nonprofit platform for art, cultural development, and neighborhood transformation that supports artists and strengthens communities through free arts programming and innovative cultural amenities in the Grand Crossing neighborhood of the South Side of Chicago.

Gates is the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees including the Isamu Noguchi Award (2023); National Buildings Museum Vincent Scully Prize (2023); and many more. In April 2018, Gates was appointed as the inaugural Distinguished Visiting Artist and Director of Artist Initiatives at the Lunder Institute for American Art, Colby College, Waterville Maine. He was the Visiting Artist in Residence at the American Academy in Rome (2020); and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2021. Gates is a professor at the University of Chicago in the Department of Visual Arts.

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