Dabls explores sex and sexuality in his first art exhibit in 20 years 

The naked truth

We've written about Dabls before, the artist and powerhouse behind the quintessentially Detroit African Bead Gallery and MBAD Museum — and the sprawling, impossible-to-miss outdoor art installation that surrounds it. But what we didn't know was that Dabs is also a painter in his own right, and he's exhibiting his first solo show in 20 years, a series of nudes, at Hamtramck's Public Pool gallery. Well, maybe "nudes" isn't the right word. We caught up with Dabls at his African Bead Gallery and MBAD Museum to learn more.

Metro Times: We've spoken to you about your sculptural work, but we didn't know you were also a painter.

Dabls: I was a painter first. I started painting in the early '70s and I studied at Wayne State for three years as a minor in art. But I was involved in an automobile accident, and it changed the direction of which I was going because part of my therapy was art. So I began to focus more on the art because of the pain of the associated with my automobile accident.

In the '80s my wife and I opened a gallery. That left me more time to paint. She was a teacher, so I had to keep the gallery open, which is a lot of downtime just sitting around. So I was able to do my art without being concerned about selling it, just stockpiling it.

In fact, when I came over here in 1996 from downtown I had accumulated over 5,000 pieces of art. I was quite prolific. and I lost most of those paintings in the buildings that's next door. When the roof collapsed all that art was in there so I said, "Oh well, it wasn't meant to be seen."

MT: Where did this show come from?

Dabls: In between working [on the installation] outside, I did the art. I created a series of watercolors — forget about the traditional use of watercolors. I took some classes in watercolor at Wayne State, and so I said, "What if I just used this like any other paint?" Which I did and I did the series. It was maybe 200 total. It was here in the basement, and a visitor came and wanted to see my art. I said I didn't have anything on canvas, but I have these watercolors. That was first time I showed them.

MT: What are these paintings about?

Dabls: It was a comment on the terms "nudity" and "naked." It's just a matter of how you view or how you've been trained to view. They both are the same, but they have entirely different meanings.

When I grew up, not very many people was conscious of the fact that when you saw pictures of African people in magazines they would use the term "naked." It turned out to be a very negative connotation. But if there was something dealing with Europeans, they would term "nude" or "nudity," so that stuck with me. I posted some pictures [on social media] that were perceived to be "naked" because it was traditional pictures of people. But how you can tell people to go back and cover up if you see pictures that are really just representing a part of history?

So my response to them — as opposed to just taking it down and taking a slap on the hand, because I had five days to take down or just cancel my account — was I wrote a note to them explaining that most of the planet today still are topless, and when you are enforcing a concept of nudity it's really culturally based. To my surprise they left the pictures up.

So I did a series of paintings just to protest the fact that one culture's domination is so deep rooted in us that we take it for granted. It's primarily promoted by religious institutions. They want you to cover up and show nothing, and by approaching from that point of its makes us see the body as being unnatural.

So all this stuff just came out in this series of paintings that I had done with the female body. But the people who've seen them immediately connect them with sexuality: "You doing your freaky stuff now." But that was not my reason. It was to point out that we have been so tricked into isolating certain parts of the female, and then taking that — and billions of dollars are being made.

MT: Did you work from a model?

Dabls: In my days, I have observed a lot of females. So there is a file in my head of those things that attracted me.

Normal Nudity opens from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 at Public Pool, 3309 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck; apublicpool.com. Runs through Dec. 19.

More by Lee DeVito

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