“O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.”- Isaiah 64:8

Gates: As a potter, you learn how to shape the clay.”

“Clay and religion are foundational to the practice of the Chicago-based artist.” Whitechapel info booklet)

Date: 13th November 2021

What was it: a multi-media, group exhibition involving ceramics, film, drawing, painting, sculpture.

Venue: White Chapel Gallery, London

Curators:(?) Theaster Gates and Whitechapel Gallery’s Chief Curator, Lydia Yee 

Location, setting, atmosphere and examples of the work:

The cavernous spaces made me feel like I, a lilliputian in comparison, was walking into a kiln, especially with all the pottery objects around me. Without the guide, I found it difficult to see whose work was on show

The internal walls were of brick as were the exhibits:

An interpretation poster explained their relevance to the exhibition:

Different aspects of the brick are also on show in the vitrine which had ceramics from different potters:


Although I found Gates’s raising the aesthetic profile of the humble brick on which most of our lives depend to make it enticing and important, I enjoyed the variety of the work of Simone Fattal & found it much more engaging. She seems to uphold Gates’s philosophy of learning to shape clay, and making figures on-the-move = being physically and spiritually transformed. As such I found her work emotionally gripping. The brickwork interior of this gallery too makes it look like a giant kiln in which her subjects are trans/formed – mostly in the eye of the viewer.

Fattal’s figurative work engaged me because I can relate to the functional aspects of the people on which the figures are based.
“A series of black and white etchings, drawn from Fattal’s memories of Damascus, as a garden paradise, appear as maps or windows for the voyagers.”(Info booklet).

I can relate to the landscapes in both the painted and the ceramic forms because they tell me on what aspects of the landscapes Fattal focused – those aspects which appear as windows or maps for the voyagers.

The Yoko Ono section seemed like a gimmick to me at first but, when I saw how engaged some of the members of the public were in putting the pieces together, I stopped and had a chat.

Yoko Ono inspired workshop:Mend Piece for London

I loved the fact that the space was for anybody to mend bits of pottery – you did not have to be an artist to qualify for a seat. Its starting point is the Japanese tradition of kintsugi, the art of repairing broken pottery using lacquer combined with metals like gold and silver.

In my own work, I have focused on fault lines in rocks where my thinking has compared the overt cracks that go deep, where the reshaping formed in geological structures over time, with the fault lines in ourselves over time which we try to gloss over / hide. Kintsugi in practice accentuates those lines and embellishes them as something precious to show to all rather than either throwing away the object or patching it up & using it as second-best.

Of the two people, in their early twenties that I spoke to, one was aware of the principle that Ono was using to underpin her practice, while the other was just playing around creating his own objects unaware of why he was doing it.

What I took away with me about the work:

The basis for the exhibition is that, as clay, we are made and shaped by God and and society, and as such we are to be valued for what we are – warts & all. This is apparent in the reverence with which mankind is treated in all the aspects of this exhibition and by all the artists whose work I saw.

This consistency is paramount in all 3 of the displays that I enjoyed. I found I was lost in the film compilation, possibly because there was too much to take in and I was not in the right frame of mind.

Elevating what we all take for granted, like the humble brick and the broken / mended piece of pottery, is a thought worth sharing and carrying away with us wherever we go into the different communities around us.

It is particularly apt in the current climate crisis caused in part by our throw-away practices, our over-abundance, our wastefulness.

Gates’s film was very informative of the way he works and what he holds dear. The dignity of the human being stands out in the work of both Gates and Fattal

What I took away with me about me:

I am attracted to 3D representation more than 2D.

I really engaged with the activity for the Gates exhibition by Phoebe Coolings-James to help visitors explore the work and ideas in the exhibition:

  1. What different textures can you find in the exhibition? Look for marks made by tools and hands.
  2. If you could touch them, what would they feel like? Like the sculptures and ceramics in this exhibition we are shaped and moulded by our environment, by the people in our lives and by our experiences.
  3. Who are the people in your life that have a special significance for you? What are the ornaments, objects, mugs or dishes in your home that have a special significance for you? Write draw or make a mark to represent them.
  4. Using your body and this sheet of paper find ways to mould the paper into different shapes and vessels. Try carefully wrapping the paper around your knee, elbow or hands and gently shape it. Try flattening it out after each shape and see what traces and marks are left. How have the different words, images and marks been transformed by this process?
  5. What new object have you created? You can also try this activity using clay at home. You can photograph and share your creations on Instagram by using //whitechapelgallery

Next steps:

Try some of the exercises 1 – 5 above in relation to making plaster casts of rocks, then try to combine them into new forms applying the kintsugi principles.

2 thoughts on “Review: Theaster Gates: A clay sermon; Simone Fattal: Finding a way;Yoko Ono:Mend piece.

  1. I very much enjoyed your reflections on this exhibition Anna and how it relates to and informs your own practice. Theater Gates looks to be an amazingly multi-dimensional artist. I’m hoping to be playing around with clay in the New Year.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Catherine. I am hoping to make plaster casts along the lines suggested in the worksheet but on rocks, if I can, and follow the fault lines like I did some 3 years ago. You would love the Fattal landscape creations, I think.


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