Theaster Gates

Theaster Gates’ Black Monks hit the road

The Chicago artist takes his monastic order to Porto this month for 12 days of art, music, sermons and readings

Aside from being one of America’s best contemporary artists, and a social activist with an impressive record of improving poorer neighborhoods in his native Chicago, 41 year-old Theaster Gates has a pretty good singing voice. He joined in his local Baptist church, progressing to the directorship of its youth choir at the age of 13, and he continues to sing today, combining his strong, gospel-style vocals into his artistic practice.

Since 2009 Theaster has led the Black Monks of Mississippi. While the group aren’t drawn from the banks of that great American river, they nevertheless take the black southern musical traditions into uncharted waters. Gates describes his group as “an experimental musical ensemble” of close collaborators, augmented with newer, occasional members from around the world, alloying African American traditions with a heterogeneous range of influences.


Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi
Theaster Gates and the Black Monks of Mississippi

“They are an order of performers who harmonize the Eastern ideals of melodic restraint with the spirit of gospel in the Black Church and soul of the Blues genre deeply rooted in the American musical tradition. Uniting these diverse spiritual and religious practices,” he goes on, “the Black Monks simultaneously achieve holiness and humanness, restraint and ecstasy.”

Musically, it’s a beguiling mix of US traditions with East Asian ideas and practices, bringing to mind recording artists such as Pharoah Sanders. To this, the artist also adds the kind of contemporary political, spiritual and social gloss that informs a great deal of his work. Want to hear it all first hand? Well, if you’re in Porto, Portugal this month, you might have the chance. The Black Monks are coming to the city’s Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art 7 – 19 September. Styling their residency as a “monastic retreat” Theaster and his group will conduct 19 separate ‘movements’, consisting of sermons and readings, as well as more straightforward concerts. Some of these will form part of the museum’s programming, while other sections will be private, undertaken for the monk’s own contemplation and benediction.


Gates Monks

For more, go here. For greater insight into how a roving group of contemporary monks qualify as art, get a copy of Defining Contemporary Art; and check back here soon for more news on Phaidon’s own upcoming work with the multi-talented Mr Gates.