39 Olayami Dabls


Born Canton, MS, 1948 / Studies in Mechanical Engineering and Art, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit

Olayami Dabls’ sprawling outdoor installation at Grand River and West Grand Boulevard verges on a world where America rushes by, cocooned in tons of rusting metal – in other words it overlooks Interstate 96. Dabls knows that world. He trained as a mechanical engineer, and worked as a draftsman for Chevrolet Motors. Then in 1975 he had a serious car accident that hospitalized him for three years. During that time he turned to painting (his minor in college) as an escape from the constant physical and psychic pain. He left the hospital and never looked back, taking stints with the original African-American museum, and various theater companies, before eventually founding a gallery with his wife. Around 1998 he moved to the present location, starting the African Bead Museum that carries his name, and transitioning from an artist/gallerist to an educator/storyteller.

To understand the installation, Iron Teaching Rocks How To Rust (1998-present), it helps to know that it tells a story of the interaction between African culture (symbolized by rock) and European culture (symbolized by iron). Hence, the apparently oxymoronic title can be read as a commentary on how the (European) education system coerces “rocks” (i.e. Africans) to “rust” (i.e. aspire to a veneer of European-ness), despite the obvious implications that such attempts are at best futile, and at worst set people of African descent on the road to personal decay. Clearly education is both the subject and the objective of Dabls’ art.

Other than rocks and rusting iron, the most obvious materials used throughout the installation are wood (often symbolizing Native American culture) and thousands of mirror fragments – which represent communication with the ancestors, and provide an integrated feeling over the extensive site. Everything other than nails and paint has been sourced for free – Dabls is very proud of that. Looking over the project is an Nkisi tasked with protecting the work from vandalism, and the land from the eyes of the city. By all accounts it’s been very successful. Looking south, a massive glass-encrusted Nkisi House provides a formidable backdrop. Behind that, every scrap of Rock’s Language Wall is covered in a tribute to the 26 pre-European written African languages Dabls has researched. The wall’s ever-changing surface texture ranges from grids of nails and dowels to Jackson Pollock like drips and splashes. The plethora of mirrors, and intricacy of details, means, as with everything else in the project, that the visitor’s experience is constantly changing; evening twilight is an especially magical time to see it.

Another way to visualize the project, and the way Dabls himself describes it, is as a series of scenes from a broader story – one which we all enter through a world pre-configured by European modes of thought. In one critical scene, rocks sit attentively in rows of metal frame chairs, invoking the feeling of a Classroom (or equally a church). It illustrates a recurring theme throughout the project – that of European culture’s mission to reproduce itself through institutional control. Further examples are provided by Iron Teaching Rocks Table Manners, and History Cabinets. The former has parallels to Dabls’ series of paintings Normal Nudity (2011) which similarly question western cultural norms, in this case relating to nudity and sexuality. In History Cabinets, rock’s cultural heritage is shown incarcerated in filing cabinets, symbolizing the western art museum’s need to categorize and isolate objects which in rock’s world are simply part of society; as Dabls points out, there was no word for art in traditional African languages. The antithesis of the previous three scenes is provided by Figure with Ibo mask, which symbolizes the freedom that we all – even iron – really strive for. By consciously starting from an African-centered view of history, Dabls’ work may be particularly relevant for African-Americans, but fundamentally his message is the universal one that “we are all 99% the same.”

Ultimately Dabls is asking us to investigate how historical processes such as colonization and slavery have led us to what we consider normal. Academics might see parallels to postmodern historiography, and even to Paolo Freire’s radical pedagogy, but by constructing such a creatively overwhelming installation, and using it for the educational purpose of unmasking the totalitarian impulses of western culture, he manages to both question how we’ve arrived at this point, and imagine a world free of that death-drive. That it sits by a freeway in the center of the Motor City makes it even more poignant.

Steve Panton, December 2015

Copyright Essay’d 2015