Walker exhibit of ‘intensely black work’ risky, tough, necessary

Solomon Gustavo/MSR News The “Johnson Publishing Company Collection” display

Leave it to a black editor to find meaning and beauty in a typewriter. In the heyday of Johnson Publishing Company, which published Ebony and Jet magazines, the editors wanted their typewriter to be as detail-oriented and stylish as they were in the 1960s and ’70s. 

Their Chicago office, a swanky, “Mad Men” scene except everybody was black, was as sleek and modern as their influential periodicals. The typewriter mattered, too, so an editor called down to IBM and custom ordered a typewriter covered in red faux alligator skin. 

At the Walker Art Museum this fall is an exhibit that recreates that office, complete with the red typewriter, plush, welcoming sofas and volumes of vintage copies of Ebony and Jet. “The Johnson Publishing Company Collection” makes up one room in the expansive — and free — four-room exhibit in the Target Gallery of the Walker by Theaster Gates calledAssembly Hall.” 

Gates, a sculptor, performance artist and collector from Chicago whose work is being featured in a major museum exhibit for the first time, creates each room into its own work of art. “The Johnson Publishing Company Collection” exhibit is juxtaposed with “Negrobilia,” a room full of trinkets and images of the black minstrel and Sambo. 

Gate’s collected the items to make a historical gallery, one that reckoned with the ugly past. 

“That room is not different from a war museum,” Gates said during a walkthrough of the exhibit. The creation and spread of those images really happened — and still do — and caused real damage. “It’s evidence of a sort of psychological warfare.”

Solomon Gustavo/MSR News “Negrobilia,” a display at the Walker Art Center

The long and ongoing history of unflattering black caricature is a big part of the reason John H. Johnson and others in the black press have had to venture to set the record straight. 

“In many ways Johnson Publishing is a reaction to the fact that those items exist,” said Walker Art Executive Director Mary Ceruti. “They contextualize each other.”

Gate’s immersive gallery challenges everyone, black and white and otherwise, to think about the painful images. Brought together, noted Ceruti, they confront the viewer with how the ugly, taunting sights are everywhere and how we get used to them. Putting the images into historical context helps people of all races better understand them in the present. 

“‘This is not reflecting on you,’” said Gates, imagining what he would say to a black child getting ready to see the hurtful images. “‘This is not about you. It’s actually about how [cruel] white people can be in America.’”

Gates said so in front of a gaggle of reporters, alone in front of a group of 15 or 20 overwhelmingly white faces. Speaking such truth is what makes Gates such an exciting artist. The Walker giving an artist like Gates such a large platform is part of the Center’s commitment to new and underserved voices. 

Bringing the black, the minority, the new 

Solomon Gustavo/MSR News Theaster Gates

Walker Art has a relationship with Gates that goes back to 2010. In 2017, Gates’ statue “Black Vessel for a Saint,” a black, 20-foot-high Renaissance temple with a statue of Saint Laurence, the patron saint of librarians and archivists, inside, was erected in the Walker Sculpture Garden. 

Also in 2017, the Walker Sculpture Garden displayed the sculpture “Scaffold,” a recreation of the gallows used to execute men in 19th century America, including the hanging of Dakota men in Mankato following the U.S.-Dakota War in 1862. After intense backlash, the sculpture was torn down and burned. 

The decision to bring Gates’ “Assembly Hall” was made by the administration before Ceruti, the same that approved “Scaffold.” In part due to the “Scaffold”fiasco, the Walker’s executive director at the time, Olga Viso, was removed and replaced by Ceruti. 

Gates’ innovative and intensely black exhibit was still on the books, which Ceruti said she was excited about. But given the fallout and lack of sensitivity around the “Scaffold”statue, Walker staff as a whole were pretty wary about Gates’ “Negrobilia” display. 

“I will admit there was a lot of conversation,” said Ceruti. The staff didn’t dwell on its commitment to black artists and Gates, but on how to do so in the most appropriate way. They grappled with what it meant for a place like the Walker, especially given its recent history, to display something like “Negrobilia.” In the end, the collection of minstrel images is placed next to the context of Johnson Publishing; the Walker wanted to balance the responsibility of having a platform by leaving the tone of the exhibit to Gates to make it his world. 

“Theaster is a really amazing thinker,” said Ceruti. 

The Walker looks to seek out untapped talents like Gates, those who have yet to have a major museum show. Ceruti, who took over the Walker in Nov. 2018, came to the Twin Cities after making New York City Museum’s SculptureCenter stand out in the East Coast museum scene as a place for minority, women and emerging artists. 

Ceruti said that’s part of the reason she left the smaller New York museum to come to the Walker — to find “diverse perspectives,” introduce new ideas, and expand the art world canon. 

Gates is a great fall kick-off for the mission. The other two galleries in his exhibit include a multi-media room, flashing images on the wall of classical art history and old images of black people, and a subtly intimate gallery of Gates’ pottery.

As for “Negrobilia,” Ceruti said she and the Walker are excited for its reception and ready for viewer feedback. Part of the goal of the exhibit is engagement and the connection of tough but necessary ideas. 

“To someone being offended,” if they are black or white, said Ceruti, “my reaction is, ‘Let’s talk about that, then.’”

“Theaster Gates: Assembly Hall” is free. It started in September and is open until Jan. 12 at the Walker Art Center located at 725 Vineland Pl. in Minneapolis.