In this lean, powerful and timely exhibition, the Chicago artist, activist and practising urbanist Theaster Gates draws upon a daunting archive of Black American popular imagery with a decidedly feral and interrogatory eye. The making of cultural meaning and the legacy of Black images are meaningfully interwoven in “The Banner Waves Calmly.” It is the most recent in a continuing litany of similar interventions with, and articulations of, archival materials by Gates. In fact, the works presented in Montreal are integral to a more expansive production on display contemporaneously at the Prada Foundation in Milan.
Taking a cue from the seminal work of French philosopher Jacques Derrida on the archive, Gates explores with criticality the politics of representation and racial constructions deeply embedded in the archive. He draws in particular upon the holdings of the Johnson Publishing Company, the publisher of American magazines targeting Black audiences such as Ebony, Jet and Tan. Judiciously extracting salient images from the publisher’s own files, Gates magnifies them on banner-like tarpaulins, and allows the sundry annotations related to their appearance and use to remain legible, if anonymous, thus preserving and, in a sense, sacralizing the aspect of performativity associated with them.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to suggest that Gates’s important efforts segue with the “fever” Derrida dilates on so pungently in his seminal Mal d’Archive (translated as Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression) as a compulsive, repetitive and nostalgic desire for the archive, and a deeply felt need to return to the origin as the site of deliverance and redemption.
Derrida suggests that to have archive fever is to burn with passion and to never rest from wrestling truth from the archive at the very moment it seems to slip away, to return to a very delicate time in the pursuit of truth and trace—the time of the beginning, the point of origin. Gates is an artist and an activist, and we can liken him to a performance artist of a restless and driven persuasion. Here, the One (I mean the archive) cannot effectively separate itself off from the Other without an irrepressible conjuration of itself—and Theaster Gates effectively curates material culture while maintaining cultural memory.
It should be noted that, at the curatorial behest of Centre Clark, Daisy Desrosiers (formerly director of Battat Contemporary in Montreal, where she earned kudos for curatorial innovation and excellence) has curated this exhibition (notably Gates’s first in Quebec) deftly and with great formal sensitivity.
Desrosiers hails from Saint-Hyacinthe on the south shore of Montreal, where she grew up as the daughter of a Haitian father and a white Quebec mother, and has radiantly invoked here an important formative moment in the archives of memory drawn from childhood around an album by Whitney Houston, a Black singer who became notably iconic in what was a preponderantly white environment. Here, the curator’s own childhood memory segues meaningfully with the archives of society that Gates exhumes to such dramatic effect and situates between notions of “commencement” and “commandment.”
Arche is a Greek word with the senses “beginning,” “origin” or “source of action.” It has two primary meanings: commencement and commandment.
“Commencement” means the beginning—natural or historical. The archive traces something from its very inception and further on, teleologically, throughout its history. But there is another meaning of the exact same word: “commandment.” With the act of commandment the law is intentionally and intrinsically inscribed. The archive draws a radius with specificity across the whole of content and always remains distinct from what is still left outside. Thus, two interwoven predicates known as the ontological and the nomological collide in the single word Arche. Both the ontological and the nomological are inscribed in the plenum concept of the archive as both irredeemably historical and political.
The belief that the archive entails originality is an important one, as is the belief that original presence determines evidence. The issue of identity, both self and social, in terms of inclusion and exclusion, is clearly implicated. These concerns are echoed in Gates’s work in this current exhibition, where, as a shamanistic and instructive provocateur, he offers a suitable remedy for forgetfulness and implicitly acknowledges that the figure of the archive still retains immense cultural and methodological significance in terms of the humanities.
Derrida invested the archive with an immanent figurality. He maintained that it has always been a pledge and a palpable token of the future. In the four banners collected here featuring imagery drawn from the African- American popular culture of the 1960s to 1970s, Gates signals his agreement with the philosopher and foregrounds the archive as an overarching figure of thought that further—and indelibly—bears the double name of action and resistance.
“The Banner Waves Calmly” was exhibited at Centre Clark, Montreal, from January 10 to February 16, 2019.
James D Campbell is a writer and curator in Montreal, and is a frequent contributor to Border Crossings.