elements of connection.
Though born and raised in Mississippi, Olayami Dabls is a Detroiter through and through.
“I moved to Detroit in 1965 at the age of 17. I was educated here in the city, worked and raised my family in the city and became an artist in the city.”
After moving, he was accepted into Highland Park Community College’s drafting program and began working with General Motors as a detail draftsman. But after 15 years on the job, he severely injured his back in an automobile accident, temporarily putting him out of commission.
“Part of my therapy after the accident involved taking art classes, and because the brain can't focus on two things at once, my pain went away whenever I was making art. That’s when I decided to become an artist.”
It wasn’t long before he found an opportunity that would start him on that journey.
“I got a job as a curated artist in residence at what’s now called The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. At the time, there were only two people on staff, so I found myself in a situation where I was not only utilizing my artistic talents but also doing a lot of research. I stayed there for about 15 years, learning a lot about the history of African people in this country and building exhibits based on what I was learning.”
After nearly a decade in that role he was growing restless with some of the restrictions he was running into at the museum, so he and his then-wife — who had studied both fashion design and business — left and started their African art shop.
“We didn't make a lot of money, but it exposed me to a whole different way of viewing the world. At that time, Coleman Young was mayor, so the city was going through a transition where African people were taking control of most of the businesses that were in the city and Europeans were moving further out, or just moving our entirely.”
The vacancies created during that time allowed him to open up shop in multiple locations, including David Whitney Building, Trappers Alley and another on Washington Boulevard. Still, business was tough in the city’s deteriorating economic climate.
Around the same time though, the city began hosting cultural festivals in Hart Plaza, which he began attending as a source of creative inspiration.
“Each festival represented one of seven or eight prominent cultures in the city at the time, mostly through food and music or other entertainment. At one of the African festivals, some of the vendors actually traveled to Detroit from Africa and brought native artifacts, many of which were beads. I started buying and selling these African beads, which lead to doing more research about their true meaning. I discovered that the beads were not used for adornment, but rather, for important community traditions like initiations, rites of passages, awards, accomplishments, and so forth. It was all about communication.”
As he learned more, he knew he wanted to find a way to start sharing those stories.
“I decided to open an African Bead Museum. I found a property on the corner of Vinewood and Grand River that would work, but, at first, the owner refused to sell me the property. I remember being really angry about it, and I sort of snapped back and said, ‘well, why don't you just give me the property then?’ At first, she thought I was crazy, but after telling her why I wanted the land, she finally agreed to give it to me on the condition that I follow through with my plan.”
With that, the museum was born. He relished the freedom of running his own space, and with a full city block to reimagine, he started getting creative with a little help from some neighbors.
“I had a whole city block that was covered in debris, trash, and overgrowth, so we started by cleaning up and cutting the grass. This was also at the time when community gardens were popping up around the city, so I hooked up with The Greening of Detroit to create one on the property. We even got the permission from the city to create murals and outdoor installations on the grounds, so we started doing that as well.”
It was a welcome solution to a problem the city was struggling to deal with at the time.
“Graffiti artists had destroyed a lot of property, which left a bad taste in the city’s mouth. But this new group of artists came through who wanted to turn those ugly buildings into diamonds in the rough by painting murals. I thought it was a great idea because the way I see it if you live somewhere and one of the rooms is in disrepair, you don’t attack the house, you fix the room. And that's how I saw the city. It was a victim of circumstances. And when it comes to fixing the city, it's not always about the big skyscrapers, it's those little things, like the grass being cut or painting murals over graffiti.”
Today the museum features far more than just Dabls’ remarkable bead collection; it is also home to his artwork and installations, which heavily feature themes around culture and identity, as well as the utilization of four elemental materials he believes unite us all.
“When I encountered African beads, I also encountered African sculptures, math, and textiles. Through my research, I realized that the prevailing perception of Africa was that it is uncivilized, savage — all these negative connotations — so I wanted to use my art to prove that was inaccurate and Africa was misunderstood. That’s when I discovered there were four materials used throughout Africa — iron, rocks, wood, and mirrors — that were so common that even strangers, no matter what part of the continent they were from, understood. It made me think that people are all pretty much alike no matter where they come from, it’s just these ideas that separate us, and that these materials can be a common thread.”
That’s when he began identifying symbolic meaning in scientific facts.
“We can’t live without iron, in fact, there’s enough iron in each of us to make a three-inch nail… We also can't live without the trees, and modern-day science is finding that we are more like trees than we ever imagined… Rocks are the basis of everything around us. We may call them crystals and healing or precious stones now, but they’re still just rocks... And mirrors really fascinated me. When you look in the mirror, the image you see is reversed, so you can never really see yourself the way other people see you by looking at a mirror. So I began to use the mirrors to make people a part of the installation and saw all kinds of reactions, but mostly smiles.”
One part of his creative approach is exploring these heavier topics in a way that makes them approachable for everyone. Take, for example, his piece titled, Iron Teaching Rocks Table Manners.
“All the installations on the property are dealing with relationships that have occurred between one culture dominating another culture. Iron Teaching Rocks Table Mannersmeans that iron has already taught rocks its language. Now, if I teach you my language and don’t allow you to use your own, that's stage one of cultural annihilation and the beginning of culture mimicking and assimilating. Because if I'm teaching you how to use my utensils and how to eat like me, the next thing I'm going to teach you is art, then dance, then theatre… Then you begin to rust. Rust is a state of deterioration. Rust means you’ve lost all contact with your own culture.”
It’s an issue that resonates deeply in Detroit.
“Detroit was built by people who only thought about themselves, not about the people they were oppressing. Those issues were at the forefront before Detroit crumbled. Remember, black people received positions of leadership and authority in the city while Europeans left, so there was no harmony there. Then black people were blamed for the natural death of a city because of the ‘67 rebellion, but the city actually started dying because the plants laid off so many people and that just continued.”
So as the city continues its renaissance, he believes that part of healing those wounds and moving forward in a healthy way means not forcing the issue, but rather, letting nature take its course.
“When you forget about that which brought us here, it becomes problematic. Take the concept of integration, for example. Plenty of people got along fine on this planet long before this city, or even this country was built, and it wasn't based on an integration model. It was based on respect and learning about a particular culture group, because the more we know about something, the less we fear it. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the relationship between Africans and Europeans. We know a lot about Europeans, but they do not know a lot about us, and that which they do know is based on the dissemination of bad information. But that's changing this time… There are a lot of things that are changing now.”
Bringing these and other issues to the forefront for anyone who wants to learn more about them is a crucial part of the museum’s purpose. And doing so through art forged from those four core materials makes his work connect with audiences on a deep and profound level.
“We’re all walking around with all kinds of knowledge and experience that cannot be reached because we don't have triggers to access it. The museum is a trigger because those familiar materials are here in front of your face, and I believe that unlocks information in the subconscious; just like a familiar smell or song bringing back a memory. If the museum brings a smile to someone’s face, then I know that it has carved a path toward understanding. So I'm just offering these triggers because we all share the same mind on this planet, so therefore we share a common connection.”
During this fragile time in Detroit’s resurgence, Dabls work is perhaps more meaningful and relevant than ever before. Because though development has undoubtedly given the city an impressive sheen in recent years, it cannot erase the rust of history. And, if we choose to ignore that rust, we run the risk of it once again teaching us table manners, rather than defining them for ourselves.