13 Dec — 3 May 2020
Amalgam, the first UK solo museum exhibition of American artist Theaster Gates, couldn’t be more timely
Inspired by the story of Malaga, a 42-acre island off the coast of Maine in the north-eastern US, Gates has created an exhibition that combines film, sound, found objects, art and sculpture to reflect both its story and its wider significance.
Today Malaga is uninhabited, but from the end of the American Civil War it was home to a small integrated fishing community of blacks, whites and people of dual heritage until they were forcibly dispersed in 1912.
According to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) the island was first settled in the 1860s by black families whose members were born free in the state of Maine. By 1880, 27 people lived on the island, with the population increasing to 40 people in 1900.
Rumours about this unconventional outpost and its inhabitants abounded at the time, most of them fuelled by racist, nativist and Social Darwinist theories that held sway in the US and elsewhere. MCHT records that, ‘Rumor mongers and reporters created fictionalized accounts of Malaga’s community, depicting residents as escaped southern slaves or the offspring of slaves and describing islanders as immoral, lazy, shiftless, ignorant, and alcoholic.’
Opposition to ‘miscegenation’ — a term that originated in the course of the American Civil War — was also central to the white supremacists’ belief system then and now. In a 2017 article Jessica Viñas-Nelson describes it as ‘permanently rooted’ in America’s racial lexicon from the time of the Civil War. It was the high-profile marriages of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson to white women — Etta Terry Duryea in 1911 and Lucille Cameron in 1912 — that shocked many Americans and intensified efforts to introduce state-wide anti-miscegenation laws.
But it wasn’t just racists that wanted to see Malaga cleared. The island also attracted the attention of developers as tourism replaced Maine’s traditional wooden shipbuilding industry. Islands, considered virtually worthless since the state's founding in 1820, were suddenly being viewed as potential gold mines.
The artifice used to displace Malaga’s inhabitants echoes those of white and colonial power structures through the ages. They even dug up the island’s dead, reinterring them at the Pineland Cemetery in New Gloucester. But in Malaga’s case the anticipated development never happened.
What was achieved, however, was the removal of a perceived eye-sore: ‘The poor condition of many of the islander’s homes offended some mainland residents and spoiled the view of newly arrived, wealthy, summer visitors’. It hauntingly evokes contemporary gentrification projects and the way many inner city areas are left to fester. These includce Grenfell Tower and its infamous cladding, chosen in part ‘so that the tower would look better when seen from the conservation areas and luxury flats that surround north Kensington’.
At the heart of the exhibition is a 35-minute film, Dance of Malaga 2019, that combines dance, music and archival footage. Most striking is the way the Arcadian scenes are punctuated by historical quotes and film clips that cut through it like the lashes of a whip. None is more shocking than a clip from Douglas Sirk's 1959 film ‘Imitation of Life’ in which a white youth (played by Troy Donahue) beats up his seemingly ‘white’ girlfriend (played by Susan Kohner) when he learns she is in fact ‘black’.
Gates’ focal point is ‘hybridity’ — a charged term that has been used ‘to designate processes in which discrete social practices or structures, that existed in separate ways, combine to generate new structures, objects, and practices in which the preceding elements mix.’ This has been a recurring theme in Gates’ work as is reflected in the exhibition title itself as well as the juxtaposition of materials such as cast metal and hewn wood and his frequent use of black and white.
Notions of racial purity are, of course, staging something of a comeback. Marginalised in the aftermath of the Holocaust they were cocooned underground for a generation, only to be dusted off by right-wing populists in the post-2008 era. Weeks before I visited Amalgam a row had erupted over the appointment of a new No 10 ‘super forecaster’ who had expressed views many linked with eugenics. It seems 100 years after the clearance of Malaga it’s not just found objects that have been unearthed.