A voice from the back of the theater emerged and Nyah Macklin ’16 walked down an aisle singing  “Take Me to the Water,” by Nina Simone. Simultaneously, Brontë Velez ’16 danced down the center aisle, and the sound of a violin accompaniment came as Priya DeBerry ’17 walked down the opposite side. The audience remained transfixed, and eyes followed the trio as they made their way towards the stage. 

On Wednesday afternoon, renowned artist and activist Theaster Gates was awarded the Brandeis 2015 to 2016 Richman Fellowship Award for his activism as an innovator, artist, curator and cultural entrepreneur. 

The event, “A Cursory Sermon on Art and the City: Theaster Gates, Richman Fellowship Award Presentation and Lecture,” drew a full audience to the Wasserman Cinematheque.

In October, Gates was named the 2015 to 2016 Brandeis University Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life. In light of his lecture, he spent four days on campus visiting classes as well as meeting with various members of the Brandeis community. 

Following Macklin, Velez and DeBerry’s entrance, Gates, sitting near the front of the stage, was the first to stand in ovation for the three students. 

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By AARON BIRNBAUM/the Justice

ALL SMILES: Lisa Lynch embraces Theaster Gates as she awards him the prestigious Richman Fellowship.

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By AARON BIRNBAUM/the Justice

CAPTIVATED AUDIENCE: A mixture of students, faculty, staff and Brandeis community members gathered in the Wasserman Cinematheque to hear Gates speak.

The rest of the audience quickly followed suit. Interim University President Lisa Lynch then went to the podium to introduce and present the award to Gates. She spoke of the background and genesis of the Richman Distinguished Fellow in Public Life, which was created by Brandeis alumna Dr. Carol Richman Saivetz ’69 and her children in honor of her parents. The fellowship is coordinated by the International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life on behalf of the Office of the President. 

Previous recipients of this award have included Julian Bond and Angela Blackwell. 

Lynch described the award and explained, “Richman Distinguished Fellows are selected from among individuals active in public life, whose contributions have had a significant impact on improving American society, strengthening Democratic institutions, advancing social justice or increasing opportunities for citizens to realize and share in the benefits of this nation.”  

Gates graciously accepted the Richman Fellowship Award presented by Lynch and Saivetz. His works aim to use art and creativity as instruments to bring attention to poverty, revitalize neighborhoods and provide opportunity. In 2012, Gates was named “Innovator of the Year” by The Wall Street Journal. 

Gates then took to the podium and began to sing. “Take Me to the Water” rang out for a second time. 

A picture appeared on the screen; a young black man with a red hood obscuring his face stood at the center of the composition. “None but the wealthy, none but the wealthy shall see the king,” Gates sang before entering the main chorus. 

He transitioned into speech, and the photo changed to one of him, taken from when he was a young man, sitting at a potter’s wheel surrounded by three friends.

“When I say that I was once a young man with hair,” Gates laughed. “It is hard for my friends to believe. When the book says that I am a potter — sometimes it’s difficult to see the origins of a thing because of the accumulations,” Gates said. 

Gates’ early work began in pottery; he graduated from Iowa State University with a Bachelor of Science in Urban Planning and Ceramics. He went on to explore religion in South Africa, and in 1998, he received a masters degree in Fine Arts and Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town. 

In his speech, Gates emphasized his preoccupation with windows. “Looking through them, boarding them up, opening and closing them. Ceilings breaking. Patching them.” As he spoke, the screen displayed images of old buildings. Gates restores old buildings, renovating them and turning them into cultural institutions. 

These renovations are a part of the Rebuild Foundation, a project which he founded and for which he serves as the Artist Director. The foundation is a non-profit focused on cultural driven redevelopment and the creation of affordable space initiatives in communities lacking in resources. 

“They [buildings] used to have so much to give, so much space to hold,” Gates said before he paused. “Well, beauty,” he continued. “They’re all being replaced with minor strip malls, Nike outlets, Sbarro.” A picture of a brick building appeared on the screen. It was still standing with its center destroyed. “Not all buildings have the capacity to be saved,” explained Gates. 

Gates explained to the audience the making of a brick. “It needs to have six percent permeability —  that is, it’s allowed to weep. I want to ensure that the brick I make achieves some standard by the national building association.”

He explained, “I don’t want to make a cute brick that doesn’t achieve brickness. The very nature of the work depends on it being able to weep like a brick. It needs to act like a brick. That it might be a brick.” He spoke as if the brick were a person, as if the bricks were a demographic of humans and the standards that came with being a part of that group. 

“In 2012, I was really interested in the relationship between domesticated spaces, not necessarily housing, spaces that occupy ...  their failure, demise.” 

Gates explained his preoccupation with the demise of “domesticated spaces,” which are not limited to just housing spaces: he explained them as any building that occupied people. “Is it possible that I could take my love of development and my love of clay? Conflate those things into a modular unit, and that brick would be the embodiment of my belief in the materials and would also allow me … to change the world?”

He also expressed his fear of digital innovation taking over analog innovation. He asked, “Is it possible that in 2016, no one in the United States will know how to construct an arch? Is it possible that in 2018, the only people that will know how to make pots, that have had diasporic tendencies, will in fact be white people?” Gates questioned the audience. 

The Rosebud, a gallery on Main Street in Waltham which features pieces from the Rose Art Museum’s video collections, will continue to display Gates’ work through April 3.