Theaster Gates, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Statistical Graphics

After reading this review of a Theaster Gates show at Regan Projects, in L.A., I hurried to see the show before it closed. Inspired by sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, Gates created artistic interpretations of statistical graphics that Du Bois had produced for an exhibition in Paris in 1900.  Coincidentally, I had just heard about these graphics the previous week at the Data Science Education Technology conference while evesdropping on a conversation Andy Zieffler was having with someone else.  What a pleasant surprise, then, when I learned, almost as soon as I got home, about this exhibit.

I’m no art critic ( but I know what I like), and I found these works to be beautiful, simple, and powerful.  What startled me, when I looked for the Du Bois originals, was how little Gates had changed the graphics. Here’s one work (I apologize for not knowing the title. That’s the difference between an occasional blogger and a journalist.)  It hints of Mondrian, and  the geometry intrigues. Up close, the colors are rich and textured.

Here’s Du Bois’s circa-1900 mosaic-type plot (from http://www.openculture.com/2016/09/w-e-b-du-bois-creates-revolutionary-artistic-data-visualizations-showing-the-economic-plight-of-african-americans-1900.html, which provides a nice overview of the exhibit for which Du Bois created his innovative graphics)

The title is “Negro business men in the United States”. The large yellow square is “Grocers” the blue square “Undertakers”, and the green square below it is “Publishers.  More are available at the Library of Congress.

Here’s another pair.  The Gates version raised many questions for me.  Why were the bars irregularly sized? What was the organizing principle behind the original? Were the categories sorted in an increasing order, and Gates added some irregularities for visual interest?  What variables are on the axes?

The answer is, no, Gates did not vary the lengths of the bars, only the color.

The vertical axis displays dates, ranging from 1874 to 1899 (just 1 year before Du Bois put the graphics together from a wide variety of sources).  The horizontal axis is acres of land, with values from 334,000 to 1.1 million.

The history of using data to support civil rights has a long history.   A colleague once remarked that there was a great unwritten book behind the story that data and statistical analysis played (and continue to play) in the gay civil rights movement (and perhaps it has been written?)  And the folks at We Quant LA have a nice article demonstrating some of the difficulties in using open data to ask questions about racial profiling by the LAPD. In this day and age of alternative facts and fake news, it’s wise to be careful and precise about what we can and cannot learn from data. And it is encouraging to see the role that art can play in keeping this dialogue alive.