Strike! Your oldest of Ropes is currently taking part in industrial action in my real job and so I have time to turn to my oft-neglected blog. This is the second post in a row based on a recommendation by my good pal Giro, following my piece on Saga earlier this month. If I’m not careful I’ll have to give her some recognition, or worse, commission. What’s ten percent of nowt? I never was much good at maths.
Until recently, as far as I was concerned Malaga was a city in the south of Spain; a gateway to copious amounts of Andalucian free tapas and free-flowing, if not actually free, sangria. At least that was until earlier this year, when I visited the top floor of the Tate Liverpool to see Amalgam, an exhibition of thematically linked work by Theaster Gates. The collection shines a light on Malaga – not that one remember, another one, an island just off the coast of Main in the north east of the US.
Spanning just 41 acres, this ‘Mercican Malaga used to be home to a small community of mixed-race people. There they lived happily from the 1860s until 1912, when it was forcibly cleared by the state governor, under the influence of eugenicist, racist and dodgy economic ideologies in the region at the time. The people who lived there were separated, relocated to the mainland and given no housing or work. Though ostensibly a due process (a measly stipend was paid), it was cruel, unnecessary and used the power of the state to enact a political will. People were ordered to physically move their own houses. Not households, but houses. Off an island. In 1912. An entire family of seven were institutionalised under questionable pretexts, graves were dug up and the schoolhouse moved. The discrimination didn’t end there: on arrival to the bigger towns at a time of welfare cuts, people were refused pauper status, making them ineligible for financial support.
The supposed crimes of those on Malaga? The ‘degenerate’ practices of un-segregated living, having mixed race children, drinking tea and smoking tobacco.
The children were deemed genetically immoral or criminal and the existence of the island was seen as a blight on the reputation of the state. To clarify: we are not talking about the time of the American civil war – when the community was founded – but rather the twentieth century. This awful social cleansing was done under the auspices of preparing the island to be a tourist destination, replete with brand spanking new hotel. The owners of the island are credited to be the Perry family, though they were only found to be so by the courts in 1911 and they conveniently supported the evictions.
The island was already for sale anyway and the community there had found financial backing from missionaries to buy it from the Perrys. Driven by political ideology and resentment towards both the community and the missionaries, however, the state outbid the Malagan population’s offer and the forced removals began. The redevelopment of Malaga and attendant tourism never came to fruition and evidence of the violence wrought on the people of the island remained. Meanwhile, on the mainland, the term ‘Malagite’ became a racist byword.
Amalgam is inspired by these little-told events and mixes artefacts and new pieces, emotionally responding to the stories of those who lived on this once harmonious island. The collection of Gates’s work, his first solo exhibition, has been curated into six main sections, grouped to the casual observer into five rooms.
Visitors are first greeted by Altar, which utilises slate and timelines to build an imagined altar ‘not of race, but of the truth of this mixed moment’, mirroring the pluralism at the heart of Malaga. It is constructed ‘for the non-binary, halves and quarters and eighths who are equally whole’.
The Island Modernity Institute and Department of Tourism 2019 takes found objects from the island and combines them with a luminous neon logo, entitled ‘In the End, Nothing is Pure’. It’s a clear sideswipe at the racism underpinning the attack on Malaga and the thin pretence of tourist-centred regeneration which was employed as a flimsy cover. Contrary to the dehumanising rumours of the mainland about the residents of Malaga, they lived normal lives, with normal household items, tools and toys.
A classroom reminds us of what was stripped of the children of the island, who had been educated at the school house since 1908. Its blackboards and cupboards offer clues about life there and what was to come.
The exhibition truly explodes into life with Dance of Malaga, an affecting and poignant video mixing choreography, music and archive footage revealing the pervasive racism that dogged the US for decades to come (laws against mixed marriages remained on the books of many states till 1967). It’s powerful stuff and the moment that the exhibition seems to make sense, the dormant found objects that precede it are awoken anew. The dark greens and browns of the dance scenes imprint on the retinas. You can almost feel the moist atmosphere of the dense Malaga greenery, aided by the wooden blocks on which you are sat. ‘There is pain in the dance and song in the trees. There is life in the water’, says Gates.
The next room functions as something of a preparatory room for the final showpiece. It contains a mish mash of found objects (not necessarily from the island) and repositions them in a new context. Mulatto Slum Removal uses a forklift used in demolitions while copies of iconic African American magazines Ebony and Jet are given prominence. A black statuette drowns in ball of mud and concrete.
But it is the final room that screams for your attention. Bronze casts of African wooden masks sit atop a multitude of ash plinths, all salvaged by Gates. It’s a forest of funky faces, alternately black and white, like a giant chess set that’s gone rogue. The artist maintains that the process of casting and reproducing the wooden masks ‘reflects the desire for preservation’, something that’s no longer possible for Malaga. But Theaster Gates has done a decent job of keeping the memory of the island alive.
I confess, I was underwhelmed when I first arrived in the exhibition, after much hype from someone I respect. “So far, so many found objects,” I thought, and yet by the end I was genuinely moved. The film in the middle justified the pricey admission alone. At least it would have done, had me and my artist mate not got in for free. Still, worth every penny. I’m made up that I got to learn about Malaga, not just the tragedy, but the little window it opened into a world of plurality, peace and prosperity.