A new Theaster Gates solo exhibition in Texas explores Houston’s Freedmen’s Town

The Gift and The Renege

A new Theaster Gates solo exhibition in Texas explores Houston’s Freedmen’s Town

The show is on view at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston through October 20. (Alex Barber/©Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and Theaster Gates Studio)

At Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, a new art exhibition centering the work of Theaster Gates sheds light on Houston’s Freedmen’s Town—a historic 19th century community first built by formerly enslaved Africans in Texas after the U.S. Civil War.

Freedmen’s Town is sited in Houston’s Fourth Ward, otherwise known as Mother Ward. It became a nationally registered historic site in 1985 because of the important role it played in the Emancipation Trail.

The solo exhibition, Theaster Gates: The Gift and the Renege, features new large-scale paintings, sculptures, and installations by Gates. Equally prescient, the show explores Freedmen Town’s story after years of community activism to preserve the neighborhood’s legacy for future generations.

sculptures staged in a gallery
Theaster Gates sculptures at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston (Alex Barber)

Construction on Houston’s Freedmen Town started in the 19th century. After 1865, newly freed Black people from Texas and Louisiana moved to the site along San Felipe Road from Brazos River Plantations.

Shortly after, they built a thriving community replete with churches, shotgun houses, restaurants, and jazz clubs famously anchored by handmaid and laid brick streets. Overtime, Freedmen’s Town provided both community and safety in a still-very racist society, especially during Jim Crow.

By 1930, over 36,000 African Americans lived in Freedmen’s Town—one-third of Houston’s Black population. But by the 1970s, development in Houston’s downtown encroached into Freedmen’s Town, which led to the demolition of myriad homes, churches, and establishments. Persistent segregation and redlining over the years further deteriorated the neighborhood known as the “jewel of the Emancipation Trail.”

black and white image of Freedmen’s Town
Freedmen’s Town is just south of downtown Houston. (Patrick Feller/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Today, efforts are underway to preserve what’s left of Freedmen’s Town. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston is working with Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy (HFTC) on a multi-year project called Rebirth in Action to preserve the community’s history.

The Gift and The Renege is my sculptural attempt to demonstrate the ways that industrial landscapes, displacement, and the historical fight for land rights push the boundaries of modernist and formalist architectural approaches in my practice,” Theaster Gates shared.

installation by Theaster Gates
Retaining Wall for Revolution and Resurrection by Theaster Gates, 2024 (Alex Barber)

Gates continued: “The opportunity to work closely with CAMH, Houston Freedmen’s Town Conservancy, conservationists, and residents of the Fourth Ward to honor these historic bricks, laden with complex American historical narratives, to deepen our understanding of race and the land has been a privilege.”

art pieces staged in a gallery
Left: Bright Sunny Day, 2024. Right: New Egypt Sanctuary of the Holy Word and Image, 2017. (Alex Barber/©Contemporary Arts Museum Houston and Theaster Gates Studio)

The Gift and the Renege combines the Chicago-based artist’s multiple interests as someone who studied city planning in college at Iowa State University before starting their artist journey. Since launching his award-winning career, Gates’s oeuvre has often collapsed urbanism and visual art into single ensembles that discuss Black history and Black spaces.

Theaster Gates’s solo exhibition is on view in Houston through October 20.