Beautiful things and broken things, horrible racist figurines and gorgeous pottery slathered in tar. Bricks and pots and a west African female ancestor figure fired at such a high temperature it cracked and warped and the head fell off. A rickshaw laden with bowls and plates, an old brick-press from Ohio, piles of glazed bricks and a pallet of bricks waiting to build a wall or a house. Theaster Gates’s A Clay Sermon at the Whitechapel is filled with objects and histories, stories and encounters. It is part of a sprawling trio of exhibitions that also includes an intervention in the ceramics galleries at the V&A and a concurrent show at White Cube Mason’s Yard. Next year Gates takes on the annual Serpentine pavilion commission, where the project will culminate.
Fascinated by working with clay since childhood, at 17 Gates went to Japan to study ceramics. In an interview with fellow ceramicist and author Edmund de Waal, Gates recounts being asked by his teacher: “Why are you making a Japanese bowl? Your family is from Mississippi, why aren’t you making a Mississippi bowl?” Gates slowly redefined his approach to ceramics as “Afro-Mingei”, a fusion and confrontation between the Black urban experience and the folk art and craft of Japan.
But there’s much more to it, and A Clay Sermon takes on all kinds of histories and traditions, artworks, craft and utilitarian objects, the plinth and the pot, film and song. Along the way there are broken vessels and cracks mended with gold leaf and lead, pre-planned cataclysms in the kiln, chewy, slabby ceramic “paintings”, exquisitely glazed vessels and an absurd sculpture that looks like an inflated rubber glove. There’s the gnarly and the delicate, bodies and bricks, things 1,000 years old and sculptures that seem to belong to the future. They’re all connected.
Gates has also imported works from the V&A’s collection, which sit in display cabinets at the beginning of his Whitechapel show. This prelude takes us from Han dynasty storage jars to a 12th-century Iranian plate and other historical ceramics, to slavery-era souvenir tobacco jars and decorative knick-knacks and figurines. Grinning Black boys eat watermelon and do other happy-go-lucky decorative things, these vile caricatures manufactured for white folks’ mantelpieces and side tables. A white glazed Mammy cookie jar presides.
Some of these grim gewgaws come from Gates’s own collection, and these objects are interspersed with small-scale ceramic works by Gates himself. The display continues with British, Japanese and American pottery – a bowl by Bernard Leach, things by Lucie Rie and the wonderful Ruth Duckworth.
Later, Gates includes pottery by David Drake, AKA Dave the Potter, enslaved since childhood, and passed between owners in 19th-century South Carolina until he gained his freedom at the end of the civil war. At a time when it was both illegal to educate enslaved people, or for them to read or write, Drake often signed his pots – he made thousands – and inscribed them with rhyming couplets. The apparently basic, bulging forms of these simple storage jars are deceptive – and required both great skill and strength (some hold up to 40 gallons) to produce and heft about.
They have, like the best ceramics, utilitarian or not, a sense of rightness. Drake was an exploited Black man, who salvaged his dignity and his voice through his labours and creative gifts, and whose descendants have never received any recompense, despite the huge sums his works have now sold for.
Another touchstone for Gates’s own work is the Greek-American ceramicist Peter Voulkos (1924-2002), who became known as a radical ceramic artist. His works in fired clay are related to abstract expressionism, Zen and, later, to pop art. At the Whitechapel Gates pairs one of his own works with a large wood-fired stoneware ceramic by Voulkos, his 1994 Pinatubo, borrowed from the V&A. The two stand together, sharing a plinth. Gates has made several works in homage to Voulkos, as an act of what is called in Japanese Utsushi, or “replication as a spiritual practice”.
In order to approach the working method of Voulkos, who was genuinely innovative as well as a divisive and somewhat alarming figure, Gates drank and did drugs (Voulkos went to rehab for his cocaine habit) and worked in Voulkos’s former studio at the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts in Montana. In a film at the Whitechapel Gates smokes a blunt as he whoops and dances to a wild jazz trumpet, playing among his own Voulkos-influenced sculptures in the studio, channelling bad habits as well as artistic influence. Method-acting Voulkos and avoiding parody is a difficult undertaking.
Pinatubo is a stack of elements – the shoulders of thrown vessels and slab fragments, surmounted by a funnel-like neck, that have been fused together by firing at a very high temperature. Crumbly, and looking almost accidental, or deformed by some seismic event, Pinatubo (named after a volcano in the Philippines that erupted in 1991) stands next to a far more restrained, white-enamelled vessel by Gates.
Over at the V&A, in the spot Pinatubo usually occupies, Gates has installed a much rougher sculpture, the names “Pete V” and “Dave” scratched into the black surface. An unruly presence, it is as impolite as a bomb among the display of frequently overly crafted and frivolous works in the V&A collection.
Standing in the top-lit upper gallery at the Whitechapel, big glazed vessels are arranged on plinths and benches of stone and wood. A tilted stone plinth supports a perfectly balanced vessel half-filled with tar, like some kind of crazy spirit-level. A moon-white ceramic extruded into the shape of a hot-air balloon, a small hole at its top, appears barely tethered to its base. An engorged shape like a phallic gourd and a geometric rhomboid stand about. A rough block of sandstone occupies a room-sized open cube: on it sits a small bowl for tea and a stack of masks, an allegory about the Chinese workers who came to the south in the wake of abolition. Nearby, an African chair stands beside an open-mouthed vessel on a garish 1970s patterned carpet whose brown, black and cream pattern had been trampled on and spilled on by innumerable penthouse parties at the Johnson Publishing Company’s HQ. The Black-owned company published the leading African American magazines Ebony and Jet. One after the other under the skylights, the sculptures are all as much places and encounters as they are discrete objects. I sense the interiority of the bowls and the vessels, their open mouths and closed forms as bodies and minds and reservoirs of memory.
“Sometimes I feel I’ve got fire in my soul,” sings Gates, bulky in a winter coat as he stalks the abandoned brickworks next to the Archie Bray Foundation. His film Oh, the Wind Oh, the Wind at White Cube, is a companion piece to his film at the Whitechapel. The same light falls through the slats, the same dust hangs in the air of the ruined brickworks, Gates shuffles through the same mud and snow.
Later, we see Gates throwing a pot on a wheel, and raucously getting into the Peter Voulkos zone. At the end is an old clip from a student interview, where a young Theaster announces “I’m dying to do a short film about clay … more artistically”. And now he has, in this magnificent, and magnificently complex group of exhibitions and sculpture.