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Theaster Gates’ “Black Madonna” in Basel, Pedro Reyes on Puppets, & Artists Raised on the Internet

Gates launches Black Madonna Press with The Black Monks Of Mississippi EP.

While art crowds flocked to Basel last week, the most talked about event wasn’t the fair, it was Theaster Gates’ new exhibition: Theaster Gates: Black Madonna at Kunstmuseum Basel.

Transforming the museum’s two venues into spaces for creative production, Gates continues his interest in site-specific social interventions that integrate a range of media. He created a temporary sound studio, as well as a printing workshop where he’ll work with his personal collection of Ebony and Jet magazines to explore the significance of the Black Madonna. In the first week, Gates’ musical collective the Black Monks of Mississippi (composed of Yaw Agyeman, Mikel Avery, Justin Dillard, Ben Lamar Gay, and Kiara Lanier) performed nightly with a local jazz group Jazzcampus Basel, recording their live performances and even cutting them directly to vinyl. Various performances with other musicians and artists are planned throughout the show’s run, as well as collaborations with local institutions dedicated to works on paper such as the Basler Papiermühle—Swiss Museum for Paper, Writing and Printing, and the Basler Münster.

Invited by the Kunstmuseum Basel to research its Eurocentric collection and pose critical questions around its organizational structures and institutional history, Gates chose the Black Madonna as a lens through which to think critically about historical legacies, forgotten objects, marginalized archives, and Black culture.

The exhibition is on view through October 21 and promises an extensive line-up of programs—from concerts and performances, to research projects and public debates. Once again, Gates creates new platforms for contemplation, social activism, and cross-cultural dialogue, and in doing so, continues to expand the notion of what it means to be an artist in the twenty-first century.

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The Artist Speaks

“Puppets allow you to deal with subject matters in an effortless way.”

For the past few months, Pedro Reyes has been performing Manufacturing Mischief—a satirical puppet performance that positions Noam Chomsky as the protagonist in a technological and ideological debate with Elon Musk, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand, and “Tiny Trump.” As the performances came to a close, Reyes reflected on the project and the choice of puppets in an interview with the Brooklyn Rail.

He said: “Puppets are sort of medieval robots. You can do with them things that actors won’t do so easily. For instance, the puppet of Elon Musk has a face that pops up and reveals that he is an android with blinking lights and electronic parts inside. But this is a trick that is quite ancient. It’s used in Kaidan Bunraku, which are ghost stories from Japan. Puppets allow you to deal with subject matters in an effortless way, since puppets are to a certain extent mono-dimensional. It is not a place to explore the depths of a character as you do with acting, it’s more about what the character of the puppet represents. It represents a set of ideas, and that is why it’s great to have philosophical debates.”

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