In the wake of recent police shootings of black young people, much attention has been paid to the Birmingham, Alabama riots of 1963 where fire hoses were used on high school students on civil rights marches. Theaster Gates has a series of works, Civil Tapestry, made from decommissioned fire hoses.
Powerful pieces these, minimalist colour field blocks at first glance, and then one starts to see the printed specs, usually telling us they have been tested to 450 lbs pressure, appalling to think of the impact of such pressure on the human body. Like the best minimalism, these pieces shout a big message: they are one thing, one material, with a complex political history.
Looking up 'decommissioned fire hose' one finds lots of tributes to those heroes that are fire fighters; the hoses also receive accolades: a snappy overnight bag/log carrier made out of opened-out used hose becomes a tribute to the hard work of the hose. 9/11 and front-line responders have shifted the political status of the firehose from a vicious instrument of urban street torture to a heroic signifier of bravery.
Gates' Civil Tapestries are similar to Rosalie Gascoigne's work: deceptively lush, these pieces, abstract and elegant, until one realises how freighted with social history the materials are. Highway signs and fire hoses – simply the colourful discards of everyday life until the context provided by the artist proves the materials neither neutral nor innocent, instead they become sinister.
Red-lining was, is, a practice whereby certain neighbourhoods are kept starved of services, where insurance is higher, where mortgages are never given. Part of USA National Housing Act policies of segregation in the 1930s, the red line indicated districts of no investment potential.