Detroit artist Olayami Dabls honored with Kresge Eminent Artist award

click to enlarge Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum. - COURTESY OF OLAYAMI DABLS
Courtesy of Olayami Dabls
Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum.

Real Detroiters know about the Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum. It's hard to miss the collection of buildings encompassing two blocks at Grand River Avenue and W. Grand Boulevard, plastered with colorful African motifs and mirrors.

Now, after decades of being a cultural destination and vibrant staple in the neighborhood, museum founder and owner Olayami Dabls is being honored as the Kresge Eminent Artist for 2022. The distinction is given for a lifetime of commitment and contributions to Detroit culture and includes an award of $50,000.

If anyone deserves it, it’s Dabls. The 73-year-old artist has crafted more than 15,000 paintings, murals, installations, sculptures, and jewelry pieces. He founded the museum in 1998 and has since written and illustrated three books.

“To see a man create something that sits on a corner and becomes like a 24-hour gallery where you can bring people or just drive past, to see that last and help transform the story of the city is amazing, and important to salute,” Satori Shakoor, a 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow and founder of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, said in a statement. She is one of five panelists who chose Dabls as this year’s honoree.

"For decades Dabls has been developing a tremendous creative drive in the City of Detroit," College for Creative Studies President Don L. Tuski said in a statement. "Through the MBAD African Bead Museum, he has created a communal space for understanding through his own sculptural work and his collection of African material culture. The choice of Olayami Dabls as this year's Eminent Artist only solidifies the honor and privilege it is for CCS to administer the Kresge Arts in Detroit program on behalf of the Kresge Foundation."

Dabls’ museum is not just about beads. An outdoor sculpture garden features more than a dozen installations made from found objects and materials. This is probably what catches the attention of passersby before they even realize there’s anything actually for sale inside. Each installation was laboriously crafted by Dabls himself, reflecting themes of Afro-centricism.

“Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust” is one of the more famous installations in the garden, and has been the subject of documentaries, books, and numerous essays about culture and assimilation. Large chunks of concrete painted with African silhouettes sit atop rusted chairs arranged as a classroom. In front of them stands the towering “teacher” — a tree stump wearing a tribal mask with nails and wire protruding from its body.

Dabls calls it a metaphor for more than 500 years of history between Africans and Europeans.

“If you mimic or assimilate to someone else’s culture, then your own culture deteriorates,” he said in a statement.

click to enlarge An extensive collection of beads. - COURTESY OF OLAYAMI DABLS
Courtesy of Olayami Dabls
An extensive collection of beads.

Inside the museum is an extensive collection of handcrafted beads, jewelry, and ornaments from all across the African continent, drawing both local and international tourists. (Quentin Tarantino even stopped by a few years ago.) It’s a place where you could spend hours enchanted by the mystery of it all, or just chatting with Dabls himself.

Dabls has no plans of slowing down either. In March 2022, he plans to create a new 90-foot mural on a shipping container at the intersection of Dexter Avenue and Davison Street, a few miles north of the museum. Just as the museum has done, this new mural will transform a blighted city block into a work of art.

“It’s a way to get people to take interest in Dexter,” Dabls said. “There’s energy in the community, and there’s rich history and value in people learning to see it and preserve it.”

A group of community collaborators will help craft the mural which will center around the mythical Sankofa bird of Ghana — an homage to the Akan people’s belief that "the knowledge of the past must never be forgotten."

Dabls joins an elite group of 13 fellow Kresge Eminent Artists that include celebrated painter Shirley Woodson, photographer and activist Leni Sinclair, and the late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave.

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