“I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit. Detroit gives us a sense of epochs of civilization in a way that you don’t get in a city like New York. It’s obvious from looking at Detroit that what was doesn’t work. People are always striving for size, wanting to be giants. And this is a symbol of how giants fall.” – Social activist Grace Lee Boggs
In 2007, I graduated from high school and sought to be of the world, by first attending college in a city far away from my hometown of Detroit. Middle America had nothing to offer my 17-year-old self in my naivety. Seven years, damn near two degrees later and a shit load of experiences under my belt, I am back in Detroit. However, Detroit is now no longer just another Middle American city in my eyes.
While away, I’ve learned that Detroit is America’s most American city. Historically, it is known as the city where anyone could fulfill his or her American dream due to the industrial capital established in the 1930’s. In this city, the automotive industry had provided a foundation of economic stability for low and middle class Americans, particularly people of color.
However, that dated industrial model collapsed in the first decade of the millennium, affecting the lives of millions of auto-workers. The city that is 83% African American (most of whom were automotive industry workers) collapsed as well. The inevitabilities that followed hit Detroit residents and auto workers like a stack of dominoes. Each unfortunate happenstance followed after another: jobs were abolished; families could no longer support their middle class lifestyles; homes were foreclosed due to an unfortunate systematic bank structure, and Detroit became known as a no man’s land. A stream of negative press followed, highlighting Detroit’s bankruptcy, illiteracy, unemployment and crime.
This is the city I never knew growing up. In my youth, Detroit afforded me a world class perspective. Under the tutelage of my parents, I would make monthly visits to the city’s globally respected, encyclopedic collection at The Detroit Institute of Arts. I grew up in predominantly Black neighborhoods, which housed the most influential doctors, lawyers, business men, and art collectors in the nation. Spending my formative years in a city that was so heavily populated with a plethora of African American intellectuals gave me a sense of pride and a macro understanding for an identity that is not often shared through selective histories. In retrospect, Detroit was a haven for excellence. Not ordinary excellence, but Black excellence.
Nevertheless, during my time away (2007-2014) the country experienced extreme economic setbacks, such as the financial crisis of 2008, the increase in unemployment due to global outsourcing, and bank bailouts made by the government. Consequently, America’s most American city was hit the hardest. Until now… That’s right!… Detroit is the “comeback” city (rolls eyes.) The almighty white saviors have turned this place around. Property values have skyrocketed in areas where I wouldn’t have dared to even stop past a certain time of night once upon a time. But hey! It’s great… right? I should be thankful for this avid redevelopment. But to be honest, I am not. Detroit has changed and what is happening goes beyond the scales of typical gentrification or physical displacement. Residents are being displaced in a myriad of ways.
Dr. George N’Namdi, art dealer, and founder of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art introduced a new term to best describe the resocialization happening in the city of Detroit: Psychological Gentrification. “It’s not like your traditional gentrification, where you’re physically uprooting people, because we have so much vacant property here and we’re happy to have people occupy the property…We don’t want it to change where they begin to feel like it’s not [African American’s] city. That’s what I mean by psychological gentrification. You go into places, you’re not seeing yourself as often,” says N’Namdi. When one begins to see unfamiliar faces in familiar spaces, it can make them feel extremely isolated psychologically. What is happening in Detroit is contemporary colonialism coupled with benevolent apartheid.
Detroit’s population has seen a significant decline overall since its peak of 1.86 million in 1950. Now a little less than 700, 000 residents call the city home. Due to the real-estate meltdown, many have migrated to suburbs and areas outside of metro Detroit. Consequently, there has also been an immense demographic shift in midtown and downtown Detroit. These areas have gone from being occupied by mostly African Americans, to extreme abandonment, and now, budding occupancy by white transplants. The most historically black Detroit neighborhoods have experienced an influx of enterprising white yuppies (young urban professionals with plenty of disposable income) who have taken advantage of the city’s neighborhoods with low price tags.
Scholar Thomas Sugrue, who has written extensively on the urban crisis in Detroit, has deemed this natural flow of displaced Detroit natives as “trickle-down urbanism.” While gentrification is a huge benefit for the economic stability of Detroit, it is not a benefit for the African American working class residents of the city. With 38% of Detroit residents living under the poverty line, and the city’s median income of less than $27,000 annually, Detroiters will simply not be able to afford the lifestyle that ‘new Detroit’ will provide. In the Huffpost article entitled Detroit Doesn’t Need Hipsters to Survive, It Needs Black People, writer Ashley Woods sums up the future of Detroit prophetically: “Rising housing prices mean that many long-term residents cannot afford these ‘rediscovered’ neighborhoods…Detroit is the most segregated urban area in America — which plays a role in many residents’ anxiety about being physically displaced.”
This contemporary colonialism has also seeped over into the burgeoning Detroit arts community. Detroit has produced a myriad of nationally and internationally renowned artists such as Bill Sanders, Al Loving, Elizabeth Youngblood, and Gilda Snowden(Snowden remained an influential pioneer in the Detroit artist community until her untimely passing in 2014.)
However, in spite of all of the wonderful artists it has produced, especially artists of color, Detroit is not a traditional arts town when compared to cities like New York or Los Angeles. The arts community is quite accessible for emerging artists. And, with the inexpensive real estate, Detroit has become the new home to many transplant artists from larger cities for that reason. This influx – yuppie artists moving to a less than glamorous city like Detroit as a result of financial incentives and unsaturated industries- becomes an attractive narrative for publications nationally and internationally. However this narrative can become a bit sensationalized, and tends to exclude many artists (of color) who have contributed greatly to the foundation of the Detroit arts community.
Most recently, nine Detroit based artists were featured in notable entertainment publication Vulture. In the article entitled Is Soho in the ’70s Just a Two-Hour Flight Away? 9 Artists on Why They Live in Detroit, writer Carl Swanson compares current Detroit with the “affordable cultural habitat” of 1970’s SoHo New York. In about three sentences of the entire article, Swanson addresses the alienation that 83% of African Americans might feel as a result of the city’s reconstruction. Swanson then dedicates the rest of the fairly lengthy article to highlighting several Detroit artists (some of which are not from the city), on ‘why they like Detroit.’ In a city that again, is EIGHTY-THREE percent African American, not one artist of color was featured in the Vulture article. After much backlash on the lack of diversity in the write up, the great people at Vulture apologized and posted this comment shortly after in small Italicized print below the article:
Note: As many commenters have pointed out, this story, which focuses on artists who have chosen to make Detroit their home, missed an opportunity to highlight artists of color. The list does not fully reflect the diversity of voices and experiences in the city, for which we apologize.
While the apology is appreciated, I have a feeling sincerity is not at the root of the gesture. I saw a need to respond to the lack of representation in Swanson’s Vulture article. The problem is, from the outside looking in via media primarily, it would be very easy for one to believe that there are no artists of color in Detroit worthy of mention. This is completely incorrect. Thus, I would like to share nine contemporary artists of color who are helping to reshape the Detroit arts landscape as well:
Senghor is a Detroit native, multidisciplinary artist and educator. Reid documents postindustrial urban life with exciting brushstrokes of vibrant color and portraiture oozing of humanity. Reid believes that his experiences as a teacher in Detroit schools like Nataki Talibah, Cass Tech and most currently Cranbrook, have a huge influence on his style. “I learn things in the studio that I take back and teach to my students and vice versa. It’s all a process.” Arts and education is at the core of Senghor’s foundation. His mother, nationally known artist and educator Shirley Woodson Reid has been a distinct figure in developing the arts culture in Detroit over the past several decades. Prior to serving as the arts education director for the Detroit Public Schools district in the early 1990’s, Woodson Reid also directed the Pyramid Arts Gallery and worked as an arts professor at Wayne State University. “Growing up in that type of household really allowed me to develop as an artist,” Reid once told Jonathan Cunningham of Detroit’s Metro Times. Naturally, Reid began creating artwork as a toddler, and has continued to develop works of thematic realism with hip hop and political influences.
Fatima Sow, a Detroit based artist and graduate of the College for Creative Studies creates visually complex works with mixed media to address personal queries of ancestral identity. What could be described as a form of afrofuturism, Sow creates a mapping of the past, present and future through an exploration of family history. A cathartic practice, Sow uses photo manipulation to piece together missing elements of her family’s history spanning over a range of spaces geographically, including Detroit, Michigan, Mbacké, Senegal and Milan, Lombardy. In these particular works, Sow uses several different types of wood to represent the trees on which a figurative family would be placed for mapping. Fatima Sow’s work has been featured in shows at The Detroit Artists Market and Whitdel Arts in southwest Detroit.
Bree Gant is a Detroit bred and based photographer, multi-media artist, dancer and art model. Primarily working with self portraits, Gant tackles a range of subject matter from sexuality, race, class and gender. Her most recent solo show at 555 art gallery(where she also held residency) entitled Lost & Crowned (2013), featured self portraits of the artist, coupled with relatively small scaled installation pieces made from found objects. The show, like many of her works, explored how identity influences reality and how reality can influence the intersectionality of identity. Bree Gant is a graduate of Howard University and a Cass Tech high school alum.
Artist, filmmaker, and teacher Nic Notion works through a range of mediums revealing his “hand over mouth brilliance.” His video work provides attractively disturbing reels of early 20th century silent films, QVC TV home network infomercials and Richard Pryor stand up. The images are accompanied with stark commentary of local Detroit news reporters on crime events from the 1960’s Detroit riots, up until now. Notion’s work was most recently featured at Inner State Gallery in the thematic call and response show to the Martin Luther King ‘I Have A Dream’ speech.
Rainey is an artist, curator, gallery owner, and educator. Her work has been exhibited nationally at Jackson Fine Art, The Danny Simmons Corridor Gallery, and The Detroit Institute of Arts. Rainey is also known for her youth advocacy efforts in Detroit. While working as a teacher at Loyola High School, an all male high school in Detroit, she established the “Finding the Mona Lisa: Urban Students Become Global Scholars”project which exposes Loyola students to fine art by taking international trips to witness world renowned classic art works in person. Rainey is very transparent about her journey in becoming an artist and arts advocate. This journey has influenced her to become a catalyst for social change for Detroit youth.
Rucker is a photographer, illustrator and Detroit Free Press staffer who reveals the angst of present Detroit through captivating gritty portraiture. In 2013, Rucker partnered with Mariners Inn, a homeless shelter in Detroit, after an encounter with a homeless man, whom Rucker found eating out of a dumpster one cold morning.Through his partnership with the shelter and treatment center, Rucker gave homeless men an opportunity to share their stories on portraits of themselves created by Rucker. The artist was able to make visible the humanity of Detroit’s large homeless population. His work has been featured in shows at Red Bull House of Art and Live Coal Gallery.
Sydney James is a Detroit based illustrator with a commercial art background, who creates detailed portraits of familiar figures and people she has encountered during her career. Shortly after graduating from The College for Creative Studies, James moved to Los Angeles where she worked as the resident artist on the popular ABC Family sitcoms, Lincoln Heights and The Ordinary Family. She has since moved back to Detroit, where her work has been featured at Cass Cafe and Inner State Gallery. In a recent endeavor, James along with several other Detroit artists have created works for an outdoor gallery space within Grand River Corridor, as a form of revitalization for the nascent community
Halima Afi Cassells
Interdisciplinary artist Halima Afi Cassells uses her talent as an artist to aid in the revitalization of Detroit communities. Cassells has won several arts accolades such as the Tatum Arts Scholarship and the Brooklyn Arts Council grant while simultaneously exhibiting and creating public works nationally. After living on the east coast for several years, Cassells moved back to Detroit recently where she actively spearheads initiatives coupling public art efforts with community sustainability.
Artist and arts educator Tylonn Sawyer is an integral figure in the contemporary Detroit arts community. Tylonn contributes to youth programming at The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit and produces drawings and paintings focused on portraiture and the human figure. In a 2014 Blac Magazine article, Tylonn reveals his vision for missing components of the Detroit arts community: “I think unifying these artistic endeavors under a festival that is inclusive of the arts as a whole would definitely be a step in the right direction towards creating that reputation of Detroit being an art mecca.” Sawyer’s work has been featured at Red Bull House of Art, Inner State Galleryand The N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Taylor Renee is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK