Theaster Gates

Civil Tapestry 4


Not on display

Theaster Gates born 1973
Fire hoses, vinyl and wood
Unconfirmed: 1828.8 × 4876.8 × 76.2 mm
Presented by Pamela J. Joyner and Alfred J. Giuffrida (Tate Americas Foundation) 2014, accessioned 2021


Civil Tapestry 4 2011 is a large wall-based work by the American artist Theaster Gates. It is made from strips of decommissioned fire hoses that Gates sourced in Chicago, his home town, and fixed to a wooden support. The hoses vary in tone between white, beige and brown, with three prominent red strips. Some have printed lettering (giving details of the manufacturer) but most are blank. Civil Tapestry 4 is one of a number of works that Gates made using fire hoses, and at almost two metres high and five metres wide, it is one of the largest.

The work’s title points to its political and social content. In May 1963 a group of black children and students in Birmingham, Alabama, embarked on a peaceful march as part of the struggle for equal rights for black people in America. The Birmingham Commissioner for Public Safety, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, ordered the police to use fire hoses to spray the crowd with water in order to break up the march and force the demonstrators into submission. The force of the blasts of water was immense, and many of the children and students were injured. Gates has written, ‘For days, fire hoses and canons were used to intimidate America’s wrongly served.’ (Theaster Gates, press release for An Epitaph for Civil Rights and Other Domesticated Structures, Kavi Gupta, Chicago 2011,, accessed August 2012.) The police brutality was widely condemned, and with President Kennedy criticising the Birmingham police, these events were seen as a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement. Gates commented, ‘The event led to immediate shifts in the American South and created opportunity for Black people to integrate.’ (Gates 2011, accessed August 2012.)

Gates’s materials for Civil Tapestry 4 are extremely politically charged. As well as calling to mind the use of hoses against black people during civil rights struggles, Gates’s fire hoses also evoke the destruction of black churches by fire at this time and specifically the bombing of the Fifteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in September 1963, in which four young girls were killed. By invoking the history of the Civil Rights Movement, Gates wanted to pay tribute to those people who fought in the struggle at great personal and physical risk. He has explained that he also wanted to raise a number of questions:

The student sit-ins and peaceful protests were transformative for all of this country. Some of us are slightly better while others are a great deal better, but over the last six decades, things are far from equal. The question then is one of political potency. How do we think of the history of Black political engagement that required acts of unrestrained heroism and life-threatening engagement? What is the state of Civil Rights, especially now that there are splinters of class-based need, new marginalized groups, and the ever present belief that things are better for all because of the election of 2008?
(Gates 2011, accessed August 2012.)

As such, with works like Civil Tapestry 4 Gates addressed the present as well as the past, prompting his audience to consider whether events such as those in Birmingham should be seen as part of a story of resistance that concluded with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, or part of an ongoing and unresolved crisis of inequality and disenfranchisement.

Gates began to use fire hoses in his work in 2011 following a show at his Chicago gallery Kavi Gupta in which he included a number of works featuring hoses. In the autumn of 2011 he had a solo exhibition at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art titled An Epitaph for Civil Rights, and Civil Tapestry 4 was first exhibited in this show.

Further reading
Lilly Wei, ‘Theaster Gates in the Studio with Lilly Wei’, Art in America, December 2011, pp.120–6.
Theaster Gates, 12 Ballads for Huguenot House, exhibition catalogue, Documenta 13, Kassel, and Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago 2012.
Mark Godfrey, ‘Designs for Life’, Frieze, no.149, September 2012, pp.120–7.

Mark Godfrey
August 2012

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Display caption

In May 1963, a group of black school children and students were marching peacefully for equal rights in Birmingham, Alabama. Police used powerful fire hoses to break up the march, injuring many of the young protestors. Gates has arranged strips of decommissioned fire hoses to resemble the composition of a 1960s American abstract painting – a form that pointedly failed to engage with the Civil Rights movement. Gates also questions whether the protestors’ goals have been fulfilled. ‘Some of us are slightly better while others are a great deal better’, he has reflected, ‘but… things are far from equal’.

Gallery label, November 2015

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