Driving eastbound on I-96 through Detroit, you might see it out of the corner of your eye — a brief burst of light and color as you pass West Grand Boulevard. That fleeting flash of brilliance is Detroit’s African Bead Museum, a remarkable but unheralded collection of outdoor art on the city’s west side.
Started ten years ago by the artist Dabl, the open-air exhibit celebrates African language and culture through an exuberant display of broken mirrors, beads, colorful paint, and found objects. The collection consists of two brightly adorned buildings, a found art exhibit (“Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust”), a community garden, a sidewalk mural featuring the scripts of African languages, and a small shop, Dabl’s Perette’s, which is filled to the brim with gorgeous African beads and jewelry.
It’s truly a sight to behold, and further evidence that Detroit deserves to be a national arts destination. You can check it our for yourself at 6559 Grand River Avenue, Detroit, MI 48208. It’s near the junction of W. Grand Boulevard, Grand River Avenue, and I-96, right across from Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church and Northern High School. Be sure to stop into the store, too, to meet the artist and peruse his fabulous collection of African beads.
After visiting two artopenings in Detroit last week, I’ve been thinking again about the role art might play in enlivening the city’s open spaces. This has been a pet subject of mine since 2008, when I first read Rebecca Mazzei’s great cover story in the Metro Times on “Waking Up the Neighborhood.” Drawing inspiration from the work of Detroit innovators like Tyree Guyton and Scott Hocking, her manifesto called for “a public art fund that commissions major contemporary projects beyond the conservative traditions of public art. And it needs to happen everywhere — in the urban center and in remote locations across the city.”
Scott Hocking's "Midden Mound." Photo taken from the artist's website.
A year later, her vision came to life — in New Orleans. A new biennial, Prospect New Orleans, placed works by both local and internationally-recognized artists in every pocket of the city, from the French Quarter to the Lower Ninth Ward. The event drew rave reviews and had wealthy out-of-towners brushing shoulders with local residents in neighborhoods they might otherwise not visit. A less critically acclaimed but similarly exciting event took place in Grand Rapids last year. Tens of thousands of people strolled Grand Rapid’s streets for Art Prize, which promised $250,000 to the artist with the most votes. Most of the work was kitschy, but it was a huge success for the city.
"Mithra" from Prospect New Orleans. Photo by New Orleans Lady on Flickr.
Nothing on this scale has yet been tried in Detroit, but the city’s landscape continues to serve as both canvas and inspiration for artists. Two recent examples include the Power House — a project by locals Mitch Cope and Gina Reichart to retrofit an abandoned home as an energy independent, cultural hub for its neighborhood — and the less community-sensitive Ice House — a project by two Brooklyn artists to coat an empty home in ice to dramatize the foreclosure crisis. Together with more traditional draws like the DIA, MOCAD, and the city’s many publicsculptures (like the iconic “Fist” downtown), Detroit’s outdoor art installations could both fill some of city’s open spaces and make Detroit a year-round arts destination.