Fifty years after first making their homes on the island of Malaga in the 1860s, a stone’s throw off the coast of Maine, a small community of mixed-race Americans were forcibly evicted from their homes. Over a hundred years later, the island remains desolate, uninhabited and its history largely forgotten.
In his latest exhibition, currently on display at Tate Liverpool, the American artist, Theaster Gates, sought to bring attention to this previously microcosmic footnote in the history of American race relations.
Considering that racial segregation in the US lasted, at least, into the 1960s, it’s easy to overlook the fact that mixed-race relations were a reality of American life for about as long as the country has existed. Around 7% of the US population identify as mixed race but the real figure will never really be known as personal racial identity often differs from the genealogical reality.
Since the dawn of the slave trade, black women were exploited and raped by their white owners and forced to bring up their children. While America has always been a cultural melting pot, where people arrived from around the globe to settle and establish new lives. Disparate racial and ethnic groups have always lived in close quarters – inevitably forming relationships, falling in love and starting families.
However, while it was true that these people did live and love beyond the confines of their own races; for many, this meant isolation from their own communities. It was for this reason that a number of mixed-race families settled on the island of Malaga in the 1860s. They lived there harmoniously and in relative comfort until people on the mainland decided their nearby presence was a threat to the growing local tourism industry.
The exhibition explores the history of mixed race relationships and families in America, using Malaga as its focus and inspiration, hence the name ‘Amalgam’ – a word suggesting hybrid histories and cultures.
It is housed in six different rooms, each of which has a very different feel. The first is dominated by a disorienting, large slate roof-top and a neon sign declaring your arrival in Malaga. To the left is a small room with cases containing (not surprisingly) an amalgamation of artefacts relating to various ethnic groups who were present on the island, which has the resulting feeling of a conventional museum setting.
Crossing back through the first room, you pass a large chalk-drawn mind-map on slate showing a history of inter-racial relationships. Then as you pass into the next, you’re confronted by more neon signage in what appears to be a class-room. Expect the elongated wooden chairs, cabinet and chalkboards are elevated on a wooden platform, making the walk into the room ominously feel more like one to the gallows than your first day of kindergarten.
All this time, you can hear a mixture of beautiful, ghostly music interspersed with violent shouts, screams and harrowing news footage recalling the history of American mixed-race relations. It’s quite disconcerting when you enter the fourth room, where these sounds emanate from and where the show comes to life.
A half-hour long film places the island’s history, its people, their evacuation and their loss in the broader contexts of discrimination against mixed-race Americans throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Although beautiful, the film is as dark as the room in which it is shown.
Which is why when you emerge into the final two rooms, both flooded with bright natural light, you feel ready for quiet contemplation. Something that couldn’t be more perfectly realised than when you enter the very last room.
As you walk up a wooden platform into the forest-like space, where bronze casts of African masks sit on top of timber plinths that rise out of the floor, it’s hard to ignore the ghostly feeling of isolation and decay. A feeling which you’d imagine could only be found if you instead stood among the pines that still tower above Malaga island to this day. The space is meditative and strangely uplifting.
It may come as a surprise, having read this, that the majority of Amalgam’s reviews to date have been quite lacklustre. The work has been described as derivative, messy and essentially done before. These accusations are as unfair as they are lazy, especially when saying that Gate’s (who is African American) is doing what Picasso did a century ago in being inspired by African masks.
Amalgam shines a light on a small but important episode of racial history in America. One that demonstrates many of the tensions that were found in many other communities across the country. The work is accessible, interesting and most importantly, it resonates. As you pass through each room the story unfolds and the lamentable history of Malaga island becomes tragically clear. You would be hard pressed to leave the Albert Dock not feeling you had been affected by this exhibition, for better or worse.
By John Sewell
Percentage of pop mixed race – https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2015/06/11/multiracial-in-america/
Exhibition – https://www.theastergates.com/exhibitions/amalgam2
Bad review by Guardian with Picasso suggestion – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/dec/15/theaster-gates-amalgam-tate-liverpool-review
Great video interview about the exhibition – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cammz0BMWKU