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by Damian Christinger

The Gaze of the Black Madonna. A Political Conversation with Theaster Gates

In his groundbreaking book Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, published in 1944, Arthur Huff Fauset (1899–1983) describes six different black churches, or cults as he calls them, in great sociological detail. As different as they were, they all had some characteristics in common, be it the “Church of God” (a.k.a. The Black Jews) or the “Moorish Science Temple of America,” founded in 1913: They all believed that the salvation of African Americans must be based in faith, but that it needed a shift in the way that God must be gazed at, understood, and worshiped. Veneration meant not only salvation but also liberation.

A church, which was founded after the publication of the book, in 1953, is of particular interest for the conversation I had with artist Theaster Gates on his series of exhibitions in Europe centred on the ideas of the “Black Madonna.” The four stations include the Kunstmuseum Basel (9 June–21 October 2018), the Sprengel Museum in Hannover (23 June–9 September 2018), the Fondazione Prada (20 September 2018–14 January 2019 and the Haus der Kunst in Munich (25 October 2019–3 May 2020). The four manifestations will have distinct local focal points dealing with the European ideas of the Black Madonna, but they will all have at its centre an archive of photos of women of the Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony and Jet, two of the most influential magazines for popular black culture since 1945. Or as the artist puts it…

Theaster Gates: If I do a show at a certain place, I look for a loose site-specific angle. I wouldn’t do a show in Basel just about the Johnson Publishing Company; there is, of course, an interconnection to the traditions in Switzerland, for example to Einsiedeln. But there is always a clash, it boils down to: my Madonna ain’t your Madonna, ideologically and spiritually. Everybody has their own version of the Black Madonna. The Polish, the French, the Italians, the Turkish, and the Swiss. They have a clear image of her, a tradition. We lack that; we had to invent our own. I was nineteen when I saw the Black Madonna by Glanton Dowdell—while visiting relatives in Detroit—for the first time.

The church we are talking about was founded in 1953 by the Reverend Albert Buford Cleage, Jr. (1911–2000) in Detroit and given the evocative name “The Shrine of the Black Madonna.” The church later changed its name to PAOCC or the “Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church.” The PAOCC emphasizes that the survival of black people and salvation are dependent on working for the good of the community and rejecting individualism. To this end, the church seeks to build a nation within a nation where black people can create institutions to promote their political, economic, psychological, and social wellbeing.

Inside the original church in Detroit, one finds a rough yet attractive painting by Glanton Dowdell (1923–2000), executed in 1967, called (of course) Black Madonna with Child.

Glanton Dowdell is nearly unrecognized within art history (with the notable exception of a book by Jawanza Eric Clark). It seems that he began painting in prison, where he served twelve years and ten months for second-degree murder, and where he also became politicized. The commission for the painting of the Black Madonna Chancel Mural was “a collective vision” as Clark calls it. The draft for the membership text, “Welcome to the Black Nation! A Guide of Central United Church of Christ, The Shrine of the Black Madonna,” states: “We have been told and shown through Italian Renaissance painters that Jesus was Aryan with blonde hair and blue eyes. We are also led to believe that Christianity called on black people to do nothing about oppression… We reject these distorted teachings. […] Our first project was to commission a black artist to paint a picture of Mary, the mother of Jesus – our black Madonna.”

Dowdell later fled to Stockholm in 1969, claiming political asylum, stating that the police and FBI were fabricating charges against him for political reasons. On the rudimentary website, glantondowdell.org, one finds an undated newspaper clipping from an unspecified local newspaper with a photo a smiling Dowdell and a sombre-looking woman with the caption:

Mr. and Mrs. Glanton Dowdell find comfort at church service, after a tense, frustrating ordeal for Mrs. Dowdell over nearly a week of confinement of her husband and worry of what might happen to him. Glanton was arrested with two other men the night before the curfew during the recent civil disturbance was declared by Gov. Romney. The trio said they were told by the arresting officers that they had violated the curfew. They quoted an officer of saying when Dowdell gave his name, “so you are the Black S.O.B. who painted that G.D. Black Madonna.” They said the officer then hit him with the butt of his rifle…and more beatings followed.

Theaster Gates, Black Madonna, 2018, Museum of Contemporary Art Basel, Photo Credit: Julian Salinas

Theaster Gates: I had just started my undergraduate minor in religious studies. When I saw the shrine for the first time, it kicked something off. Maybe it was a kind of starting point for my inquiries into the Black Power Movement and something that we might call the Post Black Power Movement. So, after Fred Hampton is shot, after Stokely Carmichael left, after people are exiled, you had this moment where young people from Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara, they then become professors, they become less political, less loud and then other people go to the church. And there they are able to create a political force, a propaganda force through talking about Jesus and Mary; they are able to talk about the power of black women and black men. The Black Madonna in Detroit is as much political as she is spiritual. It is a raw and powerful image, intended for people who didn’t have a lot of contact with the world of art. She is essentially an everyday woman. The fact that the painting might not be what people call “high art” makes it maybe into high black politics. It needs to be low art in order to be effective as propaganda, as a message of activism of its time. Anything that might be considered high art would be some European shit. Because you have to, of course, ask who defines what is “high.” What I love about Johnson and probably what I have embedded in my work is that rather than talking about “high” or “low,” they are willing to make formal informal things. So, it might be my knowledge of formalism in making low things formal—not trying to make them “high”—but I do like the idea with John Johnson that we can present the best version of ourselves. It might just be ironing your shirt, trying to be the best you can be in the station that you are in. These are codes that my mother and my niece, her granddaughter, would now fight about. So my niece would say, “I would like to have a Fendi purse,” and my mom would say, “Take care of the purse you have.” In my Mom’s mind, you should take care of the things you have. Through your labour and effort, applying saddle soap to your purse to keep it like new, you could fulfil your aspirations.

Theaster Gates, Do You Hear Me Calling: Ma Ma Madonna or What Is Black Power, 2018, Museum of Contemporary
Art Basel, Photo Credit: Julian Salinas

Contrasting with the sleek and popular publications like Jet were intellectual, discourse-oriented magazines like Crisis (where Fauset’s half-sister Jessie Redmont Fauset was the literary editor) and where W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963) published his highly influential essay “Criteria of Negro Art” in 1926, where he writes, “Thus all Art is propaganda and ever must be.”

Theaster Gates: So let’s unpack this a little. If we consider Du Bois within the Black Power movement or AfriCOBRA and similar movements that grew afterwards... On this level, propaganda could be read as something that has to reflect the black image, the black male and the black female. We should see everyday people doing everyday things. It should be the language of black people. Slang, whatever that is. It should be rhythmic, you know, it should be colourful, it should be attractive. That is one way of reading propaganda, as something that has a populist intent, and maybe my video work is trying to get at this question: what is black power? My work seems somewhere between a propagandistic truth and black representation. Most importantly, it aims at black ambition, not even aspiration—maybe even past aspiration. That one day I want to be here, that’s aspiration. Ambition is more like I am going to do this. Like, let us do this and that for me, Johnson had ambition not aspiration. He was selling aspiration, but he had ambition.

The entrance hall of the Kunstmuseum Basel is dominated by a black sculpture of a Madonna – cast with tar - with a Baby Jesus in her lap, who is strangely missing one arm. Surrounding the life-sized sculpture there is a continuous bookshelf, mounted at eye level, supporting a half-circle of 2500 books. They are all bound in black leather with gold lettering on the spine and seem to protect and venerate the Black Madonna at the same time.

Damian Christinger: What kind of library am I looking at?

Theaster Gates: I work a lot with archives in cities like Chicago or Detroit. We buy whole collections of books or LPs connected to black culture and make them public for the communities involved. It is unavoidable that there are doubles or even triplets of the same book when you bring different collections together. So, I started to use them as a kind of material, a basis from which to work with. I took the title of the book as a starting point, sometimes just a word, sometimes an associative phrase, and started to play around with different combinations, thus creating poems by the titles on the back of the books, which I had then bound in black leather with the parts of the poem on the back in gold lettering. It would be great if the visitors read their individual poems aloud, creating a collective performance, a prayer-like atmosphere.

This is the beauty of archives, that they can provide the soil for other things to grow, that they can mean different things to different people without losing their inner strength. The poetic possibilities within these archives or libraries are endless…

DC: The books, or the poems, seem to be protecting the Black Madonna, who is protecting her son?

TG: The model for the cast of the baby was a key fob, which was used by a lot of people in the area that I grew up, and one of them was given to me, already in the state in which we see him here. I like the fact that he is vulnerable, protected by the Black Madonna. Were it hotter in here, the tar that she is made of would start to melt, changing the smooth surface. So, she is in a vulnerable state herself, as are we. The Black Madonna in its African American itineration comes from a specific soil, grown in a specific culture. That is why you need to read the poems you construct from the back of the books in the library out loud. You need to create and feel the rhythmic cadence; it will create something that protects you and the Madonna.

DC: There seems to be a strong personal element in this show. One light installation with bathroom tiles on the ground is entitled My Mother Was a Bathroom Believer.

TG: Yes, that is true, there are a lot of personal memories incorporated in this show. This is how I grew up, surrounded by a lot of strong black women and, of course, my mother, who used to lock herself up in the bathroom to pray, the only place she could find some rest from her kids. I take these personal references, these memories and try to connect them to a collective history, so I would argue that these exhibitions are at the same time personal and interconnected to different histories in different places.

DC: In the Musei Capitolini in Rome, there is a sculpture of Artemis of Ephesos. It is a Roman copy from the 2nd century of a Greek sculpture from the 2nd century B.C. This goddess was thought of as having raised Zeus in a cave on honey. The Roman copy has a body made of white marble, but the face and hands are blackened bronze. When Maerten van Heemskerck—whose painting of a Madonna you have chosen from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Basel as a juxtaposition for your show there—depicted the Artemis Temple of Ephesos, he modeled the building after Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Thus, linking the Black Madonna of the Romans to his contemporary cult of Mother Mary.

TG: What you are saying is that the Madonna cult in Europe has pre-Christian roots. So do we, of course. Egypt may figure so prominently in black churches for different reasons; one of the aspects of Egyptian culture that always fascinated me is the fact that they didn’t have words for black or light-skinned, you were an Egyptian or not, that was what mattered, nothing else. But this convergence of different ideas in a common world history fascinates me, and I think that is one of the reasons that the figure of the Black Madonna is so relevant. It is connecting different cultural spheres through female aspects, which is a given, that cannot be stressed enough. One might actually argue that the pictures of women in the Johnson archive are embedded within these long arches of historical representation. On one hand, they are Black Madonnas; on the other, they are also Egyptian goddesses.

Theaster Gates, Black Madonna Press With King And Believers, 2012/2018. Museum of Contemporary Art Basel, Photo Credit: Julian Salinas

Damian Christinger (b. 1975, Zurich) is an independent curator, publicist, and lecturer specialized in transcultural theory and practice, the Anthropocene, and cultures of food. He studied Asian art history and intercultural studies at the University of Zurich, and his main focus lies in the construction of “the Other” in intercultural relations and art history. He was a guest curator at TBA21 and at Museum Rietberg and has curated shows in various venues.

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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti