red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) was recently performed in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center. While they were in town, Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Theaster Gates sat down for an interview with artist Susy Bielak to share the history of their intent, not only for rbGb, but throughout the timeline of their individual and interrelated disciplines. The conversation offers rare insight into how Theaster’s practice became embedded in the work of rbGb.
Bamuthi on Theaster:
[I]n the beginning, I knew Theaster as a craftsman who also had mad swag. That’s important. Of nine elements that I could name in hip-hop, style is paramount. He was someone who was classically trained and was revisiting all of these traditions in both performance and in materials—sometimes clay, sometimes paper, various textiles. I saw him as a person who was changing the trajectory and also inspiring other performers with how they get down. And I think what keeps us together are not only these shared interests, but Theaster’s particular leadership in pushing the whole art world more toward a holistic center that embodies all these different values, while also lifting up this style portion at the same time. It’s pretty extraordinary.
Theaster on activism:
I don’t use the word activism. My dad was kind of an anti-activist. He had nine children, so when people were protesting, he went to work. For him and the survival of his family, labor felt like the most active duty that he could participate in. I grew up thinking that my politics would be more in my hand and in my body and in labor. It was late that I came to the idea that a political voice could create change. These days, I’m trying to leverage both my hand and political voice, and gain an understanding of how systems and structures work and what’s needed. Is my hand needed more in this situation, or my voice?
“Creativity is such a valuable commodity and artists should use their creativity not only to create beautiful works of art but also to help solve some of the many problems our communities and country is [sic] facing.”
—Lucy, The Creative Agency member
As part of Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s advance visit to MCA Chicago to prepare his red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) peformances, he spent time working with youth groups across the city, including our very own, The Creative Agency (TCA).
Participating in TCA over the course of a two-year commitment, a small group of Chicago teens meet and work together at the MCA. The teens are driven by their passion to use contemporary art as a lens to understand themselves and the world. They learn to look critically and speak publicly about art, and to participate as young ambassadors of the MCA. We encourage you to take a peek at the enriching experiences and dialogue percolating on their Tumblr blog. A recent post highlights their visit to Chicago artist and rbGb collaborator Theaster Gates’s Dorchester Projects on the South Side with their peers from Kuumba Lynx.
red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb) is the performative culmination of a large collaboration. The work brings together people from various fields, creating a symbiotic whole to address environmental justice in relation to issues of race and class. Having worked on some past projects that were of a similarly unwieldy and collaborative nature, I appreciate that towards the outset of the project, Marc Bamuthi Joseph said, “I don’t know what this is yet.” I see this as the honest articulation of a process that allows itself to develop unburdened by the desire to be something that it isn’t. Collaboration is not merely the idea of “working together,” but also involves challenging one another to question and grapple with difficult issues and previously undissected assumptions. This is something that I think rbGb does well, both in form and content.
For the sake of this post, I will focus not so much on the entirety of the project, but more specifically on its architectural set design called The Colored Museum, which was created by Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates. Just as Bamuthi metabolizes the words of constituents from the four major cities (Chicago, Houston, New York, and Los Angeles) represented in rbGb, Gates’s creative reuse of detritus from disenfranchised communities in Chicago breathes new life into the materiality and imagination of the set design, creating something out of nothing. Or, as Gates has said, “building and making good use of the things forgotten.”
The repurposing and use of materials for multiple meanings has a social and political charge, and this is something that Gates has been developing through a number of different projects. A prime example of this is his informal cultural space here in Chicago called Dorchester Projects. Also, his Town Hall project is currently being developed in conjunction with the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. As I stated earlier, for rbGB Gates has collected forgotten materials in Chicago, reinvigorating them with new purpose while cultivating their unique value. I have always been intrigued by the idea of the multiple lives of an object, and here this idea is particularly poetic. Gates performs his own kind of alchemy—transforming old, weathered scraps of building materials into the spaces and walls of a “museum” on the MCA Stage. That’s heavy.
Gates’s practice challenges notions of high and low culture, art and craft, and displays how the creative process can provide meaning and value personally and within a larger community. Through the modularity of the architectural space of The Colored Museum, Gates plays with notions of inside and outside, private and public, and invites the audience to come on stage and negotiate these spaces for themselves. He seeks to develop structures that encourage people to “engage the tools of architecture as a way of making meaning of their spaces.” The field of socially-engaged architecture has a healthy history of its own, and while I am hesitant to throw this title into the mix of Gates’s long list of characterizations, I believe his work intersects with this genre, especially in his Rural Studio at Auburn University, Alabama.
rbGb‘s The Colored Museum breaks boundaries between predetermined categories and activates a metaphor for innovation and empowerment in everyday life. By putting aside established models of production, the artists of rbGb break new ground and contribute to new discourses. They create new histories that will (hopefully) be mined and applied by future generations.
The first thing you notice is his skin.
If it were soil, his is the earth brown you’d want to sow in.
A Chicago son, hard times, he does not blink.
So think of this brother brown, now see this mother black.
See how dark the day becomes when you bury the son?
—Marc Bamuthi Joseph
Oakland-based spoken word and dance artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph and Chicago-based visual artist and activist Theaster Gates collaborate to create a multimedia performance and visual installation addressing environmental issues from the perspective of communities of color. The performance, red, black and GREEN: a blues (rbGb), is presented at MCA Stage, April 12–14. The visual installation, a stage set created by Gates titled The Colored Museum, will be open for museum visitors to explore during the performance week. Over the coming weeks, visit this blog to explore ideas of community, the environment, and art through interviews, videos, images, and interactions with Bamuthi and Gates.
We invite you to answer the questions Bamuthi raises in his work: “What sustains life in your community?” and “What is your relationship to life in Chicago?” Our guest bloggers will include Kate Dumbleton from Chicago Jazz Ensemble along with community partners Jacinda Bullie from Kuumba Lynx, Mike Hawkins from YOUmedia, and Robbie Q from Young Chicago Authors. Additional perspectives come from our presenting partner MAPP International’s Emily Harney in addition to MCA voices including Curator Naomi Beckwith; Curatorial Assistant Stephen Bridges; Performance Programs Intern Eboni Senai Hawkins; and Carron Little, one of the Lead Artists of the MCA’s teen program The Creative Agency.
In the meantime, enjoy this video introduction to the project by MAPP International Productions: