Palais De Tokyo - Paris, France


At Palais De Tokyo in Paris, Theaster Gates recalls the bitter history of Malaga, an island of coastal Maine, in his solo exhibition Amalgam. This is Gates’ first solo museum exhibition in France, and therefore was my reason for going to Paris.

In 1912 the governor of Maine ordered the removal of a small community of black and mixed-race individuals from the island – some even being relegated to psychiatric institutions – to allow the redevelopment of the land for commercial use. The development plans did not materialize and present day, Malaga Island remains uninhabited.

The forced exodus of Malaga remains largely an unknown episode in American history. In witnessing Gates’ retracing of that event I reflected inward and reached an unfortunate conclusion: Learning of Malaga, in Paris, exposed the frailty of my own knowledge regarding the racial history of the country in which I live. I felt uneasy. Cue here Chinua Achibe’s recital of the African proverb, “That until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter”.

Amalgam unfolds throughout multiple spaces. At entry, a giant slope covered in roof shingles occupies nearly the entire opening to the exhibition space. The structure intrudes upon an otherwise direct walking path, a position which necessitates an intimate encounter as you make your way beyond it to the rest of the exhibition space. Titled Altar, Gates derived his rendering from photographs of actual cabins on Malaga Island.

Just behind the slope, an orbiting neon sign which reads “Malaga”sits atop an orderly pile of the same roof shingles. This pile could easily represent ruin. Yet, its purposeful circular arrangement suggests something more hopeful; the infinite outline of a circle indicates the continuity of a people and culture in spite of attempted destruction.

Walking beyond Altar reveals Island Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism.

Here jazz records and African masks - Gates’ assembly of the objects he imagined were present in the households on Malaga - surround a glass cabinet.

Visible through the glass doors is signage that I adopted as a most profound and lingering thought point of the exhibition. Immortalized in green neon reads “In the end nothing is pure.” Since Malaga was a mixed-race settlement, the racial undertone is evident.

Further on in the exhibition Gates presents a forest of ash trees which he transformed into pillars. Titled So Bitter, This Curse of Darkness, some pillars are topped with bronze casts of African masks. The wood smelled fresh as if I was walking through a living forest. Perhaps it is Gates’ signal that the history of Malaga is alive.

The prominent trees with their proud African crowns directly respond to the attempt of Maine authorities to erase the presence of the mixed-race community on the island. Here, prominence rebukes erasure. For Gates these casts “are part of a desire for preservation and conservation, a way for the artist to give form to memory.”

Gates’ presentation of African American history and African masks is timely, even if not purposeful: In late 2018 president Emmanuel Macron of France announced an initiative to return to Africa art objects that were acquired during the colonial period. In the exhibit parallels between Gates’ solo debut in Paris and the movement of prominent African Americans to the city in mid-twentieth century, when the United States was especially hostile towards black Americans, came to mind: For example, laureate James Baldwin who found both his race and sexuality more welcoming in the French capital. In Paris history is preserved and, as the adage goes, repeated.

Amalgam is on view through May 12.

All photography by Nadia Sesay.

Nadia Sesay