Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon at the Whitechapel Gallery is a fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition which investigates clay in all its forms. Gates, from Chicago, has collected clay and ceramic objects of all ages, cultures and styles. The pieces on show are challenging, beautiful, uncomfortable and beguiling but always interesting.

Theaster Gates is a man with a powerful presence. This comes across strongly in his film, A Clay Sermon, which visitors to the Whitechapel Gallery can pause to watch between visits to the different rooms. He turns pottery into a performance art with singing, and lingering shots of him slapping clay onto a wheel and carefully shaping a pot with his hands. As he says, “everything begins with clay” – it’s the oldest material which humans have used whether it’s for practical purposes or for creating objects of remarkable delicacy and beauty.

Theaster Gates: Ricksaw for Fossilized Soul Wares 2012, Wood, black cast concrete, clay and plastic

In this exhibition he has assembled examples of the work of potters who have influenced his art and shaped his approach to clay. There’s much to see, including fascinating vitrines of collected pieces.

Bowl by Ruth Duckworth (1919-2009

Some of the pieces are unsettling for their racist associations.

I loved the huge clay pots by Peter Voulkos (below) on the ground floor, a mix of slab built and wheel-thrown pieces, which look as though they’ve been smashed and glued together – a thought abstracted by some major disaster in the kiln but handsome in their celebration of process.

Gates’ father was a builder and bricks were a key part of his trade. You could regard architecture, and buildings made out of clay bricks, as artworks as well as practical structures for human habitation.

On the first floor, where the film is shown, is a collection of impressive pieces by Gates.

The show is on at The Whitechapel Gallery until 9th January 2022. Free entry.

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