In 2007, Gates showed up to the opening of “Plate Convergence,” an exhibition of work by the late Shoji Yamaguchi, a Japanese master potter who, after World War II, had moved to Mississippi, married a black civil rights activist, and established a commune. Like the rest of the visitors, Gates ogled the elegant sculptures and rubbed elbows with Yamaguchi’s son. He explained to other gallerygoers how he’d met Yamaguchi on a trip to the South, and how he considered the Japanese master to be his mentor until his death in 1991. Then, later in the night, Gates revealed that he’d concocted the whole story, hired an actor to play Yamaguchi’s son, and made the ceramic works himself.
Gates has explained the performance as a means to open up his practice and experiment more freely with new mediums—in this case, ceramics, a medium traditionally excluded from the “high art” canon. But the act also bolstered seminal themes in Gates’s practice, particularly the struggles of marginalized ethnic groups in America and the investigation of black identity and history in general. By assuming the persona of a man who belonged to another minority group and working with material traditionally outside the fine art realm, Gates was able to spotlight the many facets of racial inequality in the United States.