For his first exhibition in France, artist Theaster Gates has dredged up a dark and largely unknown fragment of American history. It concerns Malaga, a small island off the coast of Maine where, until 1912, a self-sufficient maritime community lived in relative isolation. Because the 40 residents represented a mix of African or partial-African descent at time when racism remained largely unchecked, they were evicted by the state so that Malaga Island might be transformed into a desirable tourist destination. This never happened; and the island remains uninhabited to this day. Yet within the Palais de Tokyo are a series of new monumental works, including a short film, through which Gates interprets and commemorates the larger history of colonial practices.
‘I’m trying to suggest what happens when you take real history and fake history and force it into a form like modernism,’ he explained during a preview of the exhibition. The show’s title, ‘Amalgam’, is a near-perfect anagram of Malaga; but more importantly, its meaning as a mix of elements (from materials to religious denominations) becomes the leitmotif under which Gates creates these evocative hybrid works.