Strands of tradition

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Olayame Dabls has a vision for Detroit. It’s a dream he’s cultivated for the better part of 23 years as a local historian and collector of all things African. Standing in front of the brightly decorated two-story row houses he owns on Grand River Avenue near West Grand Boulevard, it’s easy to see the African renaissance Dabls is trying to establish in the city of Detroit.

As the owner of Dabl’s/Perette’s African Bead Gallery — a one-stop shop for some of the oldest and most sought-after beadwork in the country — Dabls claims to be the leading vendor and authority on African beads in southeast Michigan.

His gallery, which is a haven for bead collectors and lovers of Africana, has thousands of traditional beads, some that date back more than 500 years, draping the walls. Dabls says he has well over 20,000 types of beads inside the store, with some ranging between $300 and $400 per piece.

Of equal significance is the beautifully painted building that houses Dabl’s African Bead Gallery, as it’s more commonly referred to in conversation. Adorned with colorful mosaics and vibrant murals that overflow with West African symbolism, the illumination of African culture both inside and outside the gallery is clearly the desired effect.

There’s a certain mystique that confronts customers as soon as they enter. In fact, there can’t be many shops in metro Detroit that have as many cultural relics on display. Yet most Detroiters have no clue as to the existence of this oasis in the middle of a desolate strip of urban blight.

Most of the beads inside the gallery, which come from various regions throughout Africa, have a story to tell, and Dabls is quick to educate customers on the origins of each individual necklace.

“You could identify any group of people in Africa by the way they wore their beads,” Dabls says. “In one country, a strand of beads could be used for a wedding and in a different country they could be used to signify rites of passage.”

Beads from the Maasai, Fulani and Dogon are all represented, as are beads from countless other groups, some of which no longer exist.

“People need to understand these are not just trinkets,” Dabls says. “Africans have adorned themselves in beads for thousands of years. Some strands of beads we have here in the shop have been passed down for generations within the same family.”

Dabls says his store exists not merely to sell beads, but to provide vital knowledge to the black community about its African heritage, and to pass along the history of the ancestors.

It’s a nice idea in theory, but these days, Dabls says, there are clear-cut problems. He says Europeans are the main importers of African beads and therefore are currently in control of market prices. In what seems like a classic example of cultural insensitivity, African beads are strictly valued by date, material and availability — completely ignoring the ancestral role beads have played in African society for centuries.

“The way Europeans price our artifacts is a bunch of bullshit,” Dabls says while holding 400-year-old trade beads from Mali. “If these were their cultural artifacts, they would be deemed priceless. But because they’re African beads, vendors are forced to sell priceless artifacts for $20 just to compete. It’s awful, and with the European dollar in control throughout Africa, the cultural value of our beads is quickly being wiped out.”

Dabls has struggled to make a living from collecting and selling rare beads to artisans and collectors. “A vendor could say a particular strand of beads has a cultural value of $600 because it can be traced back for generations through that person’s family, but Europeans can come along and say it’s only worth $5. Africans are simply getting rid of beads nowadays because they’re not worth as much.”

Dabls has been researching and pricing the beads within his own collection for the last 12 years. He buys all of his artifacts from traveling vendors, both here in Detroit and in New York, and, despite being a local authority on African relics, Dabls admits that he’s never actually visited the continent.

“No, I’ve never actually been to Africa and I don’t really see any reason to go in order to keep my business afloat,” he says matter-of-factly. “You see, the European is so arrogant, he thinks you have to go directly to Africa to buy goods so that they will be considered authentic; but Africans have been traveling with masks and beads for over a thousand years to the Americas. I can get all of my goods cheaper in the U.S., so I buy it here.”

Dabls, who first became interested in African beadwork in the early 1980s, has spent time working as a curator and artist-in-residence at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History from 1972 to 1982 and at the Rosa Parks Community Center until it closed in 1984. He began collecting beads as a hobby and eventually opened up his own store with his wife, S. Jill Miller-Lewis, in 1982. The store then was called Perette’s African Gallery and was initially located inside the David Whitney building in downtown Detroit.

The gallery has actually had a number of locations in its 23-year history — including Trappers Alley, the Millender Center and the Book Building — before the business settled into its current location in 1998.

The 17,000-square-foot building is covered in stunning artwork by Dabls himself, including oddly shaped mirrors to ward off bad spirits. There’s an equally impressive art installation located directly behind the building entitled “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust,” which was completed earlier this year by 13 local artists. According to Dabls, the exhibit, which features large pieces of scrap metal towering above rocks painted in black face, is a social commentary regarding the inefficiency of the European school system to effectively teach African children anything. It’s yet another example of how Dabls is seeking to challenge the thinking of his community.

The gallery operates in conjunction with the MBAD African Bead Museum, a nonprofit organization located in the building next door which Dabls founded in 1995. Dabl’s/Perette’s African Bead Gallery sells beads only, and is the for-profit wing of the enterprise while MBAD is the holdings side with most of the prized possessions.

In addition to collecting beads for his business, Dabls is the main buyer for MBAD, which itself has thousands of African artifacts, mainly ancient textiles, masks, statues, some that date back more than 500 years.

Although the MBAD Museum is not fully operational yet due to financial constraints, Dabls’ goal is to launch the first museum dedicated specifically to African culture within Detroit sometime in the next 12 months.

“Everything in here comes directly from Africa — and it’s the fruit of our ancestors’ labor,” Dabls says. “To me, there is nothing that can compare with that.”


Dabl’s/Perette’s African Bead Gallery is located at 6559 Grand River, Detroit; 313-898-3007.

Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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