13 Dec — 3 May 2020
Amalgam, the first UK solo museum exhibition of American artist Theaster Gates, couldn’t be more timely.
Inspired by the story of Malaga, a 42-acre island off the coast of Maine in the north-eastern US, Gates has created an exhibition that combines film, sound, found objects, art and sculpture to reflect both its story and its wider significance.
Today Malaga is uninhabited, but from the end of the American Civil War it was home to a small integrated fishing community of blacks, whites and people of dual heritage until they were forcibly dispersed in 1912.
According to the Maine Coast Heritage Trust (MCHT) the island was first settled in the 1860s by black families whose members were born free in the state of Maine. By 1880, 27 people lived on the island, with the population increasing to 40 in 1900.
Rumours about this unconventional outpost and its inhabitants abounded at the time, most of them fuelled by racist, nativist and Social Darwinist theories that held sway in the US and elsewhere. MCHT records that, ‘Rumor mongers and reporters created fictionalized accounts of Malaga’s community, depicting residents as escaped southern slaves or the offspring of slaves and describing islanders as immoral, lazy, shiftless, ignorant, and alcoholic.’
Opposition to ‘miscegenation’ — a term that originated in the course of the American Civil War — was also central to the white supremacists’ belief system then and now. In a 2017 article Jessica Viñas-Nelson describes it as ‘permanently rooted’ in America’s racial lexicon from the time of the Civil War. It was the high-profile marriages of World Heavyweight Boxing Champion Jack Johnson to white women — Etta Terry Duryea in 1911 and Lucille Cameron in 1912 — that shocked many Americans and intensified efforts to introduce state-wide anti-miscegenation laws.
But it wasn’t just racists that wanted to see Malaga cleared. The island also attracted the attention of developers as tourism replaced Maine’s traditional wooden shipbuilding industry. Islands, considered virtually worthless since the state's founding in 1820, were suddenly being viewed as potential gold mines.
The artifice used to displace Malaga’s inhabitants echoes those of white and colonial power structures through the ages. They even dug up the island’s dead, reinterring them at the Pineland Cemetery in New Gloucester. But in Malaga’s case the anticipated development never happened.
What was achieved, however, was the removal of a perceived eye-sore: ‘The poor condition of many of the islander’s homes offended some mainland residents and spoiled the view of newly arrived, wealthy, summer visitors’. It hauntingly evokes contemporary gentrification projects and the way many inner city areas are left to fester. I recall reading that Grenfell Tower's infamous cladding was chosen in part ‘so that the tower would look better when seen from the conservation areas and luxury flats that surround north Kensington’.
At the heart of the exhibition is a 35-minute film, Dance of Malaga 2019, that combines dance, music and archival footage. Most striking is the way the Arcadian scenes are punctuated by historical quotes and film clips that cut through it like the lashes of a whip. None is more shocking than a clip from Douglas Sirk's 1959 film ‘Imitation of Life’ in which a white youth (played by Troy Donahue) beats up his seemingly ‘white’ girlfriend (played by Susan Kohner) when he learns she is in fact ‘black’.
Gates’ focal point is ‘hybridity’ — a charged term that has been used ‘to designate processes in which discrete social practices or structures, that existed in separate ways, combine to generate new structures, objects, and practices in which the preceding elements mix.’ This has been a recurring theme in Gates’ work as is reflected in the exhibition title itself as well as the juxtaposition of materials such as cast metal and hewn wood and his frequent use of black and white.
Notions of racial purity are, of course, staging something of a comeback. Marginalised in the aftermath of the Holocaust they were cocooned underground for a generation, only to be dusted off by right-wing populists in the post-2008 era. Weeks before I visited Amalgam a row had erupted over the appointment of a new No 10 ‘super forecaster’ who had expressed views many linked with eugenics.
It seems 100 years after the clearance of Malaga it’s not just found objects that have been unearthed.
It was a surprise and a pleasure to speak to you last Sunday (16 February) when you called me on behalf of Keir Starmer’s Labour Leadership campaign.
I enjoyed our conversation, although I knew from the outset that we wouldn’t agree as I had already decided to vote for Rebeccca Long-Bailey for Leader and Richard Burgon for Deputy Leader. Still, it was a chance to explain why and to hear your counter-arguments.
One thing that did surprise me, however, was that parts of our conversation were then used in an article that appeared in the Guardian the following day. As it seems very unlikely that you will have spoken to two Labour Party members in Birmingham with the same opinions and same turn of phrase I can only assume that the views you attribute to Jim from Birmingham are in fact mine. I know it is difficult to separate out the roles of journalist and political campaigner but I think if you’re in effect wearing both hats it’s best to mention it at the time.
Also I know and accept the space constraints imposed when summarising an interview for a newspaper article. Nonetheless, I hope you won’t mind if I provide a little context. I can’t help but feel compressing my comments made during our 13-minute conversation into 66 words doesn’t do justice to them or, more importantly, the candidates I support.
You are right my local party nominated Keir Starmer for Leader and Angela Rayner for Deputy Leader ‘on a tiny turnout’. It’s hard to fully convey what being a member of a CLP like Birmingham Perry Barr is like but suffice it to say that outside of AGMs or selection meetings it’s rare for any meeting to reach the required quorum of five per cent. On this occasion we just made it with 44 of our 750+ members present. I mentioned this in our discussion because it seems to me that Keir’s campaign makes a great deal of the fact that he has been nominated by over half of CLPs whereas I wanted to emphasise that only a tiny proportion of our 580,000 members attend these meetings, often for good reasons.
You’re right that I described Keir as a Trojan horse, a suited-and-booted knight of the realm and a triangulator. I didn’t say, however, that he was ‘on the side of MPs who tried to vote out Jeremy Corbyn’ — despite the fact that he did quit the Shadow Cabinet after the EU referendum — nor that he is ‘in with the MPs who say they’ll quit if Rebecca Long-Bailey wins.’ My point wasn’t that Keir is spearheading the attempt of the right-wing to purge the party of Corbynism but that he is the vehicle, knowingly or unknowingly, of those in the PLP who are, and that regrettably I can’t see him standing up to them. I gave the example of the recent story that appeared in the Huffington Post and elsewhere saying a group of MPs were planning to quit the Labour Party if Rebecca Long-Bailey wins to demonstrate that even now, at the very outset of what is supposed to be a democratic vote of our members, some in the PLP are doing what they have always done, which is to say vote the wrong way and we'll destroy the party.
As for the suited-and-booted knight of the realm comment, I made this because I’m tired of hearing about Keir’s ‘electability’ not because. as some would claim, winning elections doesn’t concern me, but because I seriously doubt that what the Labour Party needs now is another London-based, white, professional, male Leader with, to be frank, few if any of the life experiences of the traditional Labour supporters who chose to vote for the Conservative or Brexit parties in 2019.
Finally, you didn’t ask me which of Keir’s policies I opposed but why I was voting for Rebecca Long-Bailey. I said because she is committed to introducing Open Selections, amongst other things, and Keir isn’t. I support Open Selections as an important and necessary step to ensure members run the Labour Party and not those we’ve chosen to represent us. You clearly disagree, saying that even the current provision for trigger ballots ‘poisoned local parties, wastefully burning energy and emotion before being suspended in the run-up to the general election’. I beg to differ. What poisoned the Labour Party, wastefully burning energy and emotion, was the unrelenting attacks on its twice democratically elected Leader by MPs like Ian Austin, John Woodcock, John Mann and Ivan Lewis, all of whom represented seats lost by Labour and all of whom called for a vote for the Tories. And yes, I think these attacks were amplified by the mainstream media.
I knew we wouldn’t agree on this as I had already read your thoughts on why Labour lost the General Election and especially recall your article — ‘Devoid of agility, charisma and credibility, Corbyn has led Labour into the abyss’ — published the morning after our defeat. I reread it after our chat to remind myself of its central argument:
‘Labour was disastrously, catastrophically bad, an agony to behold. A coterie of Corbynites cared more about gripping power within the party than saving the country by winning the election. The national executive committee, a slate of nodding Corbynite place-persons, disgraced the party with its sectarian decisions. Once it was plain in every poll and focus group that Corbynism was electoral arsenic, they should have propelled him out, but electoral victory was secondary.’
Anyone unsure of what kind of Labour Leader you crave would do well to revisit it. I have to say it seems a very long way from Keir’s pitch that we shouldn’t rubbish Jeremy Corbyn’s record, but politics has always made strange bedfellows. For me it was conclusive evidence that my concerns about Keir as Leader are well founded. That’s why I’ll still be voting for Rebecca Long-Bailey.
P.S. If you would like to read my unfiltered views of why I'm voting for Long-Bailey and Burgon you can find them here.