It’s probably safe to say few people—if any, at all—have made a connection between the Huguenots who were run out of France in the 1700s and the waves of African Americans who fled the cruelties of the South during the 20th century.
Photo by Nathan Keay © MCA Chicago
But drawing such unique parallels is a hallmark of artist Theaster Gates, whose work touches art, urban planning, culture, and music. For his well-received 12 Ballads for the Huguenot House, Gates and his team dismantled much of the worn interior and timbers of a building he renovated in a black neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side and reinstalled them in the run-down historic 187-year-old hotel called the Huguenot House in Kassel, Germany. The project was commissioned by Kassel’s quinquennial citywide art exhibition Documenta (13) and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in 2012.
Gates continues the theme for his new, large-scale installation, 13th Ballad, which opened May 18 at the MCA and runs through October 6. Here, Gates completed the architectural cultural exchange act by taking art objects and original interior fragments from the Huguenot House and bringing them to a city where thousands of black people settled during the Great Migration.
In his first big solo museum exhibition, Gates turns the MCA’s spacious Marjorie Blum Kovler Atrium into a reverent, near-religious space where the German house’s fragments and furnishings—including a set of stairs—commune with items that include discarded wood pews from the University of Chicago’s Bond Chapel. The ecclesiastical overtones are not a conceit, given the Huguenots fled France over their Protestant beliefs in predominantly Catholic nation. And the pews’ backstory is intriguing, given the context: They were removed from Bond Chapel to provide open space for Muslim students to worship. A large double cross backlit in neon is mounted on an atrium wall. “In a way, the forced migration of the Huguenots in France and the forced migration of Africans [in the U.S.] created a diasporic labor that, in the case of both people, changed the world,” Gates said in an interview days before the show opened. It is unclear if Gates means his exhibition to address another irony: The Huguenots who reached America were among this country's first slaveholders, early contributors to the conditions that would spark the Great Migration three centuries later.
Three musical performances will take place over the course of the show’s run, inspired by the blues and German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s five-act 1836 grand opera, Les Huguenots. Mingled with the art and music, both 13th Ballad and 12 Ballads raise important questions about the reuse of buildings and the use of art to uplift and create “place” in marginalized urban areas. These are familiar themes for Gates, who is acquiring buildings near the renovated Chicago house whose innards he used in 12 Ballads. His recent acquisitions include an abandoned 1920s bank building, a former beer distribution facility, and a disused public housing development. He plans community and arts-based uses for each site. The beer warehouse would become his studio.
“I wish there were the resources and the kind of strategic clarity that could recognize these buildings were important and give them usefulness again,” Gates says. “One dude can’t save all the buildings; I do mourn when they go away because I imagine the great possibility in those building. It’s not about the architecture; it’s about what those buildings do.”