The cylindrical architectural structure – “Black Chapel” – designed by Chicago-born, African American artist Theaster Gates, was constructed as the 2022 Serpentine Pavilion, which opened to the public in Kensington Gardens, London, on 8th June.
This large scale, free-to-view, immersive artwork was conceived and developed as a setting for contemplation, communal gatherings and performances – built in the round to echo and mirror the foundational characteristics of many ancient, sacred and spiritual meeting spaces that have been created throughout history.
Visitors were invited to enter the circular chamber through two, vast rectangular openings, positioned as off-centre entrance/exit-ways. The height of the door frames allowed angled rays of sunlight into the cavernous, wood-panelled minimalist interior, covered entirely in black paint. A semi-circle of static, pendulum-rod downlighters, suspended from the ceiling, provided a small amount of artificial illumination, which combined with natural light to focus attention on a ceiling aperture – or, “oculus” – open to the elements at the pavilion’s highest mid-point.
At the time of my visit, on a sunny August afternoon, about 15-20 people were seated inside the chapel on curved, wooden benches, backed against the rounded structure, with a further 10-15 strollers, seated attendees and picnicking families enjoying the artwork’s exterior features viewed from the surrounding grassy areas in Kensington Gardens, close to the art gallery.
Additionally, seven, tar-based abstract paintings, featuring a unique torched surface application technique – “Seven Songs for Black Chapel” – created by Gates as a site-specific, wall-mounted series were positioned around the curve furthest from the entrance/exit-ways. A large, historic bell was also positioned outside on the grass near the path leading into the pavilion for use during the performance programme – which has included events featuring (among others) the London Oratory Choir, classical musicians, jazz vocalists and spoken word artists.
In keeping with Gates’ oeuvre as a contemporary visual artist strongly committed to foregrounding African diaspora heritage and issues of racial justice through his portfolio, the pavilion felt like a present-day site of commemoration, designed to honour past lives – particularly Black diasporic African ancestry linked to the Atlantic world via centuries of traumatically enforced, enslaved, un-free ocean crossings and plantation slavery.
Other related historical influences and alternative points of cultural reference mentioned in the structure’s interpretation literature likened and connected the shape of the pavilion to the cylindrical bottle kilns used since the Industrial Revolution to fire pottery in Stoke-on-Trent and the wider Staffordshire region of the UK, and other similarly shaped dwellings used as spiritual sites of prayer and worship, artistic expression and/or ancestral remembrance world-wide.
The online press release summarised this diversity of historical and cultural influences as follows:
“The structure, realised with the support of Adjaye Associates, references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, and traditional African structures, such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon, and the Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda. The Pavilion’s circularity and volume echo the sacred forms of Hungarian round churches and the ring shouts, voodoo circles and roda de capoeira witnessed in the sacred practices of the African diaspora.”Source: Serpentine Pavilion website – https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/whats-on/serpentine-pavilion-2022-black-chapel-by-theaster-gates/
Spending time in and around the pavilion felt very calming in such a sparse, dark and reverential, chapel-like setting. I felt able to evoke and project both silent and spoken thoughts into the space, and listen to the hushed tones of other visitors expressing their awe and amazement – as part of a respectfully appreciative shared experience. I left the setting feeling positively uplifted by a richly symbolic, finely designed and harmoniously structured architectural wonder, with an uncomplicated beauty that derived from its aesthetic purity.
Black Chapel remains publicly accessible through to October 16th, 2022.
Information about the scheduled performances taking place in the Serpentine Pavilion, and further details about the commission, can be accessed online at
Theaster Gates’ web space is online at https://www.theastergates.com/.
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