Theaster Gates in Houston honoring Freedmen’s Town

Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (CAMH) presents Theaster Gates: The Gift and The Renege, 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,” CAMH Executive Director Hesse McGraw said. “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.”

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. 

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,” Theaster Gates said. “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’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 is an artist who understands complex city challenges and uniquely situates art, Black life, and history at the center of the conversation,” Senior Curator and Director of Public Initiatives at CAMH, Ryan N. Dennis, said. “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.” 

About Theaster Gates

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.

About Contemporary Arts Museum Houston

Established in 1948, CAMH is one of the oldest non-collecting contemporary art museums in the country, and is internationally known for presenting pivotal and landmark work by artists recognized as the most important of the 20th and 21st centuries. CAMH’s mandate is to be present, to connect artists and audiences through the urgent issues of our time, and to adventurously promote the catalytic possibilities of contemporary art.

CAMH’s programming, both in and beyond the Museum, is presented free to the public, and advocates for artists’ essential role in society.

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