Freedom songs energized a fed-up and undeterred generation during the Civil Rights Era, so it’s only fitting that some artists see music providing the necessary healing for decades-old wounds still festering deep within the Magic City. This Thursday, Chicago-based contemporary artist Theaster Gates will lend his voice in hopes of accomplishing just that.
During a one-night-only performance installation at the Birmingham Museum of Art, Gates, accompanied by the Black Monks of Mississippi, will commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the 1963 civil rights protests as well as honor the lives of the four little girls killed in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing.
His performance launches a year-long series of commemorative endeavors by various artists called “Art Speaks: 50 Years Forward,” produced by the Birmingham Museum of Art. Entitled Tis So Sweet or I Need Sugar Lawd, Gates’ piece incorporates a blend of gospel, blues and negro spirituals overlaid with Buddhist chants, all of which is designed to haunt as well as heal.
“I think an artist’s provocation is to challenge, inspire, and say things others can’t,” he says. “That’s why artists are different from politicians and museum directors. If we can’t say what needs to be said, then who the hell can say it?” According to Gates, only those who lived the Civil Rights experience can say it best. That’s why the psalmist, ceramicist and urban planner has included space in his performance for community members to tell their personal stories. “The emotion I want most from this experience is sincerity,” he says. “Will the hearts of men be stirred? Maybe. Will people feel guilt, shame, empathy, sympathy? Absolutely.”
To properly prepare for Tis So Sweet, Gates pored over newspaper articles from the day of the Sixteenth Street bombing. He’s also digested differing opinions about the city’s stance on the anniversary today. Sermons from local African-American pastors during that time were sought out as well, but were difficult to come by. “I believe that’s because they were largely extemporaneous,” says Rebecca Drake, a member of the Birmingham Museum of Art who comprised part of a small volunteer team assembled to help spread the word and gather historical information for this event.
A retired librarian with a master’s degree in divinity, Drake collected news accounts and details from the bombing, then sent them to the artist for his consideration.
Among her findings were a stack of pledge cards from Temple Emanu-El and the Unitarian Church in Birmingham. The cards were from the congregants who had pledged money as a reward for information about the murder of the four little girls. “There were even some from parents of people that I know,” she says.
Drake, who is white, was only 11 years old when the bomb hit Sixteenth Street, but said it had a profound effect on her. “I always knew that those attitudes existed in my community. I was in the eighth grade when the schools in my hometown of Oneonta were desegregated. Racial slurs were the order of the day. All of this was life-shaping. Now when I see African-American art, it often speaks to me of many types of oppression and it resonates with me.”
She’ll be looking forward to Gates’ “raw and candid performance.”
Raw is what the Birmingham Museum of Art’s own Jeffreen M. Hayes, Ph.D. saw when she first encountered the artist at the Armory art fair in New York. A conversation with him about race, art as a catalyst for change, Birmingham today and the impending 50th anniversary sparked such a surge of emotion that Gates leaped atop a table and started performing. “If he does anything like that at the Museum,” Hayes says, “…whoa!”
Hayes, curator of African-American art at the museum, was so impressed with Gates’ ability to distill the information that she invited him to launch the museum’s Art Speaks endeavor. She knew he’d deal with the subject matter in an honest way. “Sure, he’s going to open wounds,” she says. “But some of those wounds have never really closed.”
In order to heal, hard questions must be asked. “Like what didn’t happen as a result of the Civil Rights Movement,” adds Gates. “I feel it was the Civil Rights Era that allowed for an Obama moment, but there are still thousands of men and women of color who experience insurmountable challenges because of race and environment. There were 56 schools closed in Chicago. Our nation’s public school system is in dire straits. There’s still work that needs to be done.”
It’s a gift Gates has always had: the ability to express hard things in ways that really resonate, even through humor. He ascribes some of it to his Baptist upbringing, where at the age of 13, he was invited to direct his youth choir at Cedar Grove Missionary Baptist church. Ever since he’s been an urban leader and social artist. “Chicago was a violent place, and our church was in need of young spiritual leadership. They wanted to not only keep kids safe, but also grow leaders through spiritual endowment. That experience had a profound effect on me and shocked the hell out of the whole church,” Gates reminisces.
It’s fitting that the black church is where Gates got his start. These sacred spaces provided a safe haven for African-Americans participating in the movement — a movement Gates hopes to advance through his work where the church and gospel music are common themes. For him, using his voice to communicate human suffering is the most appropriate action to take. “These people were putting their lives on the line by adding double entendre to their music,” he states. “They established double and triple meanings that both healed, warned and encouraged you. And it could be done with three words: ‘We Shall Overcome.’
“In some ways I love to imagine myself as part of that tradition,” he says. After Thursday night’s performance, he hopes, so will everyone else.