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Maybe Basel will believe in black women, ’cos they’re going to see a lot of ’em,” says Theaster Gates with a laugh. He is standing in the middle of a room in the Kunstmuseum Basel, where he is preparing an exhibition on the theme of the Black Madonna. Amid the packing materials and exhibits waiting to be hung stands a roughly life-sized sculpture of a seated Virgin Mary. She holds an orb in one hand. On her lap sits baby Jesus, also holding an orb. Her features are eroded as if she has been cast from a weathered medieval statue. And she is very black – made of a shiny, plasticky-looking material that turns out to be tar. Gates uses tar a lot in his work; his father was a roofer and bequeathed his son his tar kettle. “I feel like this is the Mary of my youth, ’cos it’s in tar,” says Gates. He leans in and sniffs her head. “Oh yeah, I know her.”

He explains that this tar Mary was not based on a medieval statue but a plastic keyring, just a couple of inches high, that a friend gave him as a good luck charm. “The keychain was already old, so the limbs had been busted off. She was probably carried in someone’s purse or their pocket with their keys, and then the cares of this world tore her apart.”