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Three young black women—one with a perfect Afro, the others all mid-century glamour in their bathing caps—lark about at the steps of a swimming pool, preparing to emerge from the water. A passing photographer may have caught the joyful moment by chance; it could also be a still from a fashion shoot. It’s an arresting picture since, in reworking the monochrome image, Theaster Gates has turned the water an orangey-red. Equally intriguing is the title: “The Madonnas” (2018). What is the connection between these bathers and depictions of Mary, most often with the infant Jesus, so familiar from Catholic churches and Old Masters collections?

The title of Mr Gates’s exhibition, which opened in Basel this month and will travel to Hanover, Munich and Milan, is “Black Madonna”, and it refers to the depiction of the Virgin Mary with black or dark skin. There are some 500 Black Madonnas—mostly Byzantine-style icons created in the 13th or 14th century—in European churches. Some are intentionally dark-skinned; others have been made so by candle smoke. 

But for Mr Gates, the Black Madonna is first and foremost a black American phenomenon. The notion of a black mother of God has been powerfully resonant throughout American history, including during the civil-rights marches of the 1960s. Mr Gates first encountered the idea through a black liberation-theology group in Detroit called the Shrine of the Black Madonna, which in 1967 commissioned an 18-foot painting of the Virgin.

Comprising sculpture, video, photography and installations, the show takes as its starting point the Catholic Madonna, but all Marys and all mothers (not least his own) were on his mind as he planned the show. It goes beyond religion to celebrate “the everyday black woman”, no matter her role or occupation. What makes the artist’s tribute possible is the acquisition of thousands of images from Jet and Ebony, popular magazines printed by the Johnson Publishing Company, which for more than 70 years was the largest African-American-owned media company in America.