This article was written before the Covid-19 lockdown
The history of Malaga Island is a chilling tale. In 1794, Benjamin Darling, a free black man, purchased land off the coast of Maine in the north-eastern corner of the US.
His descendants settled on neighbouring Malaga Island, along with other disenfranchised people of various black and white lineages.
At a time when racial segregation was unquestionably enforced and interracial marriages were illegal in some states such as Maine and West Virginia, the islanders formed mixed-race families and lived in harmony. This was soon put to an end. Under the guise of protecting the inhabitants of Maine from what had been deemed as an immoral way of life, the governor forcibly evicted the island’s community.
Turning Malaga into a tourist destination was also a persuasive factor in his decision. On the date of the eviction in 1912, state representatives arrived to find that all the residents had disappeared. Those who could pass as white fled to mainland communities, others were never found. Some were caught and committed to the Maine School for the Feeble Minded.
Tribute to the oppressed
Amalgam is Chicago-born Theaster Gates’s artistic response to this little-known story. In his debut solo UK museum exhibition, which had its first iteration at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo in 2019, Gates reflects on the meaning of amalgam – a mixture or blend – in both content and execution.
A combination of new works in film, sound, installation and sculpture echoes the racial and ethnic blend that was present in Malaga. The opening work, Altar, a giant slate-shingled section of a rooftop, initially reads as a tribute to the oppressed islanders, but is instead the promise of Gates’s exquisite visual ode to the fruit of when people, materials, art movements and ideas mix.
Before this, however, visitors have to navigate a confusing layout. The second installation, which spans two of the six rooms of the exhibition but is split in the middle by Altar, combines found objects, documents, clay, concrete, graphite and other materials.
In one half they are placed on a wooden stage and in the other, in vitrines evocative of ethnographic museums. The significance of the work is partly lost because of the minimal interpretation.
The printed exhibition guide provided combines extended quotes from Gates that, at times, don’t say anything at all – the more accessible descriptions are from the Tate curators.
Elsewhere in the exhibition, an immersive room contains 70 pillars made from dying ash trees that were deemed unfit for timber and clearly represent Gates’s metaphor for the retrieval of those who are lost or discarded.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is Dance of Malaga, a stirring 20-minute film. The context of the film is devastating, but Gates masterfully intercuts period photos, archival footage, film clips and historical quotes with the choreography of the US dancer Kyle Abraham.
Black, white and mixed-race dancers move sinuously on the land that was once home to the islanders. Gates’s musical collective, The Black Monks, provides a rich and meditative film score. True to his artistic practice, Gates easily slips between different modes of making.
Gates, who is a ceramicist, gospel singer, sculptor, university professor, activist and trained urban planner, situates his practice between social engagement and fine art. He draws on a blend of these influences to connect his work to the wider history of African-American people and, in the case, of Amalgam, also that of the UK.
A timeline in the exhibition sets Malaga in the story of the transatlantic slave trade, laws against interracial marriage, segregation laws, the UK’s Immigration Act and the Windrush scandal.
The link between Malaga and the Windrush scandal may at first seem tenuous, but Amalgam brings to light the product of our imperial past: the development of eugenic theories (such as those referenced in 1912 in Maine), racism and oppression, subjects that Tate should be applauded for broaching.
At a time when the notion of decolonising our museums is being hotly debated, Gates’s voice in an institution such as Tate provides an antidote to the poisonous but more popular narrative on race relations that deliberately glosses over the structures that have created inequality.
Tate, and British society and culture in general, have been shaped by the oppression of disenfranchised groups in many fundamental ways. Neither the founder Henry Tate nor his business partner Abram Lyle were slave owners, but both the Tate and Lyle firms were “absolutely constructed on the foundation of slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries”, according to the arts institution.
Without slavery, the British sugar industry and that of the wider Atlantic one would not have existed in the form and scale that they did. As stated by a neon in one of Gates’s installations: “In the end, nothing is pure.”
History is dirty. The pursuit of racial purity on Malaga and across the US was futile. Amalgam could have been a display of justified anger at past atrocities, but instead probes a reflection on the complexities of social division. Gates’s artistic language revalidates suppressed voices and exalts the poetry of difference in a catalyst for discussions on equality, space and history.
Chiedza Mhondoro is an independent art writer
Focus on | Exhibition planning
Theaster Gates: Amalgam is an ambitious show. Gates uses the little-known history of Malaga island to explore significant ideas around migration and land ownership, as well as the legacies of slavery and racism. However, it is also ambitious on a more practical level, not only in terms of the logistical complexity of its installations, but also in pure scale.
Much of the work in the exhibition is monumental in size, made by Gates for the generous spaces of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, one of the largest museums in France dedicated to temporary exhibitions of contemporary art, and which is housed inside the former building of the International Exhibition of Arts and Technology of 1937.
Conversely, Tate Liverpool is in a former warehouse building in the Royal Albert Dock, constructed in the 1840s, not a purpose-built gallery.
As such, one of the key challenges the curators were presented with was quite simply: how do we make this exhibition fit our gallery spaces.
So, in order to deliver this project successfully, Tate partnered with renowned engineering and architectural firm Arup. Using specialist digital tools, including high-end 3D modelling software and virtual reality, Arup was able to provide highly detailed virtual models of our gallery and every individual object in the exhibition.
This meant that the curators were able to reconfigure the show using a virtual exhibition model. It allowed navigation in three dimensions to test how the layout would work – from a curatorial and visitor’s point of view – before committing significant resources to the physical build and install process.
Although many gallery projects involving VR in recent years have been visitor focused, this example highlights the potential benefits the use of this technology brings to galleries in the early stages of planning exhibitions.
Tom Emery is a content editor at Tate Liverpool