Theaster Gates and the art of soul | Bleader

Theaster Gates and the art of soul


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Table talk
“Tonight we are introducing the black sacrament,” announced artist Theaster Gates as trays of chitlins were passed around to his 30 captive guests. “Poor people were always given leftovers,” Gates said, scanning the room filled with Chicago culturati, friends, and art enthusiasts, “Tonight is a way of remembering our legacy and valuing that history.” Gates cues the Black Monks of Mississippi, a music ensemble he founded in 2008, who sing a song about the ghosts of cultural life on Stony Island. This began the second of five FEAST dinners hosted by Gates at his south-side community-based arts initiative, Dorchester Projects.

The five ritual dinners are part of Gates’s FEAST installation titled Soul Food Pavilion. These dinners are about eating good, fresh soul food in a neighborhood so far from a grocery store it’s considered a food desert. They are a way to open up the broader art world to Grand Crossing, a low-income neighborhood that has become Gates’s playground. And they are a platform to discuss the cultural and political history of soul food.

“Many 21st-century African-Americans have rejected soul food. It’s not a healthy choice, it represents an unpleasant history, and it’s ‘what we used to do,’” says Erika Dudley, who grew up cooking soul food with her grandmother and later studied the history of soul food. “So, how do we keep these traditions alive and show why they are important to black identity?” Dudley, along with MK Restaurant founder Michael Kornick and executive chef Erick Williams, created the menus for the five ritual dinners.

Dudley began with watermelon. Throughout American history, watermelon has been negatively associated with black culture. “It goes back to images of jigaboos and pickaninnies—the little black children eating watermelon with seeds in their teeth. It is completely pejorative.” Dudley still knows many African Americans who won’t eat watermelon if front of their white friends. “It’s not that I wanted to reclaim watermelon,” Dudley says, explaining her choice, “but I wanted to celebrate it. I mean who doesn’t like watermelon?!” Dudley also required that chitlins be part of every dinner, as the labor-intensive recipe is itself a traditional African-American ritual.

Sunday’s menu included watermelon cocktails, battered and fried frog legs, cubed beets, shrimp and grits, gumbo, and honey teacakes.

It makes sense that Dudley has partnered with Gates for the ritual dinners. Like Dudley, Gates finds the value in the overlooked, abandoned, and rejected. “With the Soul Food Pavilion, I’m asking: how can we reactivate abandoned buildings in beautiful ways?” Gates says. Gates acquired the “pavilion” in 2009 after it had been abandoned. Over the past three years, he has rehabilitated the space with repurposed wood from places like the former Wrigley chewing gum factory, an old barn in Ohio, and a former bowling alley. The space has now become an archive library and site of an artist-in-residence program (an effort I helped through 2011). “It’s really about reimagining this house as a place to convene and begin new conversations.” And among those conversations is the future of soul food in Chicago.

“Soul food is dwindling down to nothing on the south side,” Dudley says, referring to the many soul food restaurants that have closed in the last few years. “So maybe these dinners are exploring whether there still is room for soul food. And understanding that the role of soul food in today’s culture might be different than what it once was.”

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