‘My beloved community’: How Arabs are creating space in Detroit’s art scene

click to enlarge Yasmine Diaz "Dirty Laundry" exhibit (May 2019) at Detroit's Habibi House. - Nour Ballout
Nour Ballout
Yasmine Diaz "Dirty Laundry" exhibit (May 2019) at Detroit's Habibi House.

Nour Ballout wants everyone to feel at home.

Their unassuming duplex stands down the street from the Motown Museum, a row of houses that Black business mogul Berry Gordy retrofitted to mold revolutionary music icons from Marvin Gay to Dianna Ross. In 2017, Ballout transformed their own home into Habibi House, an engagement space and artists residency to help foster careers and community.

“Habibi means ‘my beloved.’ And my beloved community is diverse,” Ballout says. “My beloved community is not just Arab, not just queer. It is people that are invested in me and that I’m invested in.”

At 28 years old, Ballout has spent nearly a decade living in Detroit’s Arab diaspora, reimagining community, and belonging. Their projects center around building connections and navigating their own intersectional identities: Virgo, first-generation Lebanese American immigrant, and queer, non-binary Detroiter.

At Habibi House, Ballout wanted to recreate a feeling of community they remembered while growing up in Lebanon in the ’90s, a time and place where “everyone knew their neighbors, you knew the butcher,” they explain.

“You knew where you got all your shit from, and you knew the people you were interacting with,” they say. “That created a sense of home.”

Habibi House: Artist Residency

Since its inception, Habibi House has hosted an artist-in-residency program that has welcomed nine different local and national artists to build on their practice and connect with locals based on their medium and area of focus. For Ballout, that support network is the thing that separates Habibi House’s community-building practice from basic representation one might see at a gallery show of Arab and queer artists.

“Visibility is important, but can be surface level,” Ballout says. “Putting in the actual work and respect means supporting people and accessing spaces to express themselves… That’s powerful.”

The residency allowed artist Yasmine Nasser Diaz, a Los Angeles-based Yemeni American artist of collage, fabric, and installation art, to connect with the large Arab American community in metro Detroit, the audience she was missing back home in L.A.

In May 2019, Habibi House selected Diaz to debut its first public art exhibit, “Dirty Laundry,” an interactive bedroom scene.

“I was sharing personal details about my life in this space, and when people see that, it opens the door for them to share,” says Diaz.

The exhibit invited visitors into the bedroom of a ’90s teenage girl. A soft pink glow from a neon sign that read “shame” in Arabic hung on the wall over a photo of a Yemeni girl. Visitors could sit on a floral bedspread, smell delicate perfumes, and thumb through diaries filled with fictionalized worries about topics like sexuality.

“There was the vintage bed sheet hanging [in the exhibit] with the transferred image of a real product sold online for hymen rejuvenation,” Diaz explains. “The piece asks the viewer to challenge the importance of female virginity among conservative Arab Americans.”

She adds, “A lot of these conversations were about taboo things that we’re not supposed to talk about, but we’re all affected by them, can be damaged by them. And growing up, I didn’t talk about them either.”

The exhibit at Habibi House opened the door for those conversations. Ballout connected Diaz to the local artists through studio visits and set up artist talks at Red Bull Arts Detroit. In addition, Habibi House hosted community dinners to introduce Diaz to other Arabs and creative talent.

“Getting to meet other Yemeni misfits or other Arab or SWANA misfits and feel like you’re not alone,” Diaz recalls of meeting an influx of Arab and non-Arab visitors during her residency, “That’s the good stuff.”

Diaz says it was transformational to meet a diverse, close-knit community of Arab and non-Arab artists in Detroit.

“They resonate with my work and truly [know] what it all means.”

click to enlarge The A.R.A.B series dabke party at Spot Lite Detroit. - Isra Daraise
Isra Daraise
The A.R.A.B series dabke party at Spot Lite Detroit.

From Habibi House to the warehouse: Redefining ‘Arabhood’

During the last year and a half of the pandemic, Habibi House has had to close and redirect its focus into more flexible art programming, like virtual events and collaborations with larger venues. Nevertheless, Nour Ballout continued planning because they had already connected with curator and entrepreneur Roula David, who they met at a forum for immigrant artists hosted at the Arab American Museum in Dearborn. An idea grew from there.

“I had been grinding for about eight years in the Detroit art scene, really building community and advocating for Detroit artists,” says David, a Jordanian American and owner of an event space and music venue called Spot Lite Detroit.

David was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to two immigrant parents from Jordan. Before leaving Ohio, David opened her first nightclub bar, Vinyl, that hosted international electronic music artists.

She came to the birthplace of techno music to be closer to an Arab American community and to lead the 2015 launch of the annual art festival, Murals in the Market, which brought graffiti artists and muralists from Detroit and around the world to Eastern Market, but she still wanted to build something of her own.

In 2017 she purchased and restored a rundown warehouse, co-owned by Tyree Guyton of the Heidelberg Project, in hopes of opening a community-centered music venue on Detroit’s east side.

David opened Spot Lite Detroit over Memorial Weekend for this year's Micro-Movement, a version of the annual Movement electronic music festival, scaled down due to the pandemic. The warehouse holds about 300 people and hosts weekly DJ parties, a casual spot to meet friends for coffee or drinks, as well as community events. Partnering with Ballout of Habibi House, David launched an event series in May that could help draw some of the local and international attention Detroit’s art scene has earned.

“This series meant being able to do that for Arab American artists,” David says. “There are so many of us here but haven’t had the chance to come together and truly celebrate.”

The series, A Real Arab Blueprint (A.R.A.B.), is part of a project David and Ballout won a $40,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant to curate. Artists, curators, filmmakers, DJs, and dancers performed at Spot Lite Detroit and started conversations on Arab American identity in art, filmmaking, spoken word poetry, media, food, music, and dance.

David says despite living close in proximity, many non-Arab Detroiters stay in their bubble and don’t often get an insider's look at the art and tradition of Arab Americans. But a recent A.R.A.B. dance event in October signaled a change.

The event, led by Thowra Dabke (Revolution Dabke), a local Palestinian dance troupe, and Lebanese American DJ Tammy Lakkis, saw hundreds of dancers hold hands in a big circle as they moved to the right for a two-step beat and kick in the air. The communal dabke dance was popularized in the Levantine region of the Arab world.

“There must have been 300 people there,” David laughs as she described the workshop. “This was the idea, to expose people to the different aspects of Arab art,” and to highlight Arabs that never saw themselves represented, she says. “There needs to be a big shining light on what these Arab artists can do, who these people are, within this series of parties and art shows. We can be DJs and dancers, running media and writing poetry.”

A.R.A.B. co-creator Ballout says there will be more Arab American-centered events to look forward to as David and others continue the work.

“You don’t find spaces like [Spot Lite Detroit], you know?” Ballout says. “If we're not making the spaces, then they don’t exist. No one is going to make them for us.”

This story was made possible through a partnership with the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative and the Detroit Equity Action Lab at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights.

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