Bookends of the American Imagination: Theaster Gates on “Assembly Hall”

Bookends of the American Imagination: Theaster Gates on “Assembly Hall”


This room is, uh, it’s an interesting one,
because it constitutes the work that was done that was really around restoration and reconstitution.
We call the room the Johnson Publishing Archive room, but in some ways it’s like the room
of rescue, where I was given an opportunity to give a home to these objects that were
part of Johnson Publishing and their building. The furniture of the space kind of demonstrated
both a commitment to the amazing design of that time, but also the the role that, like,
a kind of black aesthetic played in in reflecting on what furniture should look like in a high-end,
black owned company. This room is the Ana J. and Edward Williams Collection. It’s filled
with reasonably complicated images, objects, caricature, from the last eight decades of,
you know, what I would consider bad parts of the American imagination. But when you
think about the truth of these derogatory images and how they were working to create
trauma for the black imagination, that you then had John Johnson, who started Johnson
Publishing, and through Ebony, Jet, Tan, Negro Digest, Black World, that in a way John Johnson
was working against these stereotypical, derogatory images. So these two rooms are almost like
bookends of the American imagination. One imagination working to subjugate people through
the creation of really negative images, and another trying to uplift people through the
creation of edifying images of the black experience. And that those things together, held in tension,
starts to show a kind of truth of how people feel about one another. I hope one day these
objects disintegrate, both physically and emotionally, that instead we would have this
truth of equity, this truth of dignity. I think we have a long way to go.

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