Imagine it’s movie night. You’re huddled in front of the TV, feeling its familiar warm static dance across your face. Wedged tightly side by side with friends, you’re so awed by the magnetic power of the main character that you scour the Internet for hours searching for the perfect jacket to match theirs. What we don’t see is the influence that created the influencer, communities outside of the limelight that our favorite muses’ aesthetics have their roots in. Although it seems like fashion’s cultural influence trickles down from the heights of cinema and haute couture, Simone Else’s wearable art makes it clear that the “it factor” also rises from the underground.
Harper Woods, MI, 1995 / BFA, College for Creative Studies; BFA Wayne
State University / Lives in Bloomfield Hills, MI
When something living dies, its chemical relationship to this world changes. Scientists use carbon dating, therefore, to assess the age of something that lived long ago, to peer into the distant past. William Charles Black uses carbon to similar ends, exploring its propensity to decay, but also its ability to preserve. This tension between ephemerality and permanence, preservation and destruction, is a thread that weaves through Black’s entire body of work, allowing him to link past to present.
Julia Pompilius is a writer and arts administrator. Born and raised in Ferndale, MI, she has been witness to the flourishing metro-Detroit art scene since infancy. She writes about popular modes of visual communication, from social media to television, and their role in shaping a new media-saturated visual culture. She is interested in fine art—painting, sculpture, photography—that deals with this phenomenon. She recently completed a master’s degree in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, where she studied the sociology of art.
Born Chicago, IL, 1981 / BFA, San Francisco Art Institute, CA; MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL / Lives in Detroit
“WHAT IS AN ALGORITHM?” Ask Mimi Onuoha and Mother Cyborg in their 2018 zine A People’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence. If the question appears startling in its directness, it may be because we have become accustomed to having the spotlight pointed in the opposite direction, to have algorithms direct their gaze on us. Onouha and Cyborg’s zine is a grassroots statement of non-conformity to this power dynamic.
Born Fukuoka, Japan, 1954 / B.A., English, International Christian University, Tokyo; B.A., Computer Science, Wayne State University; MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Royal Oak
Grief is finding yourself in an unfamiliar world suddenly absent a loved companion. But grief can also be the doorway into new ways of life you could never have anticipated. For Hiroko Lancour, this passage led from a career as a systems analyst to a full-time artistic practice.
Born Detroit, 1964 / BA, Oakland University; MLIS, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
“I‘m a Fellini fan,” confides painter, musician, archivist, and all-around cultural polymath John Bunkley. “The question I’m always asking myself is, ‘What would Fellini do if he came to Detroit?'” It is a good question. What would the late Italian director, whose films famously interpret everyday life as a magical synthesis of dream and reality, make of the otherworldly streetscapes and raw humanity of the beautiful city of Detroit?
Born Iuka, MS, 1970 / Studies at Grambling State University, LA / Lives in Detroit and elsewhere
“Somehow, I will dissolve into one of my constructs ….. I don’t understand the process yet.”
The late Detroit poet and musician Mick Vranich described his ever-increasing estrangement from even the outermost reaches of mainstream culture as a process of moving from the underground to the underworld. There’s a similarly inexorable feel to Onyx Ashanti’s ongoing life journey of transformation, transhumanism, and, as the above quote predicts, perhaps even transmutation.
Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, 1982 \ BA University of Chicago \ MA University of Illinois – Springfield \ Lives in Detroit
There’s a mysterious but exciting energy in the images created by Precious Johnson-Arabitg, known artistically as VODKASERENGETI. Her performance-based compositions have a strong and fearless nature that arrest the eyes at a glance and draw the observer into the scene.
Often turning the camera on herself, VODKASERENGETI describes her visual voice with expressive terms like out there, weird, disruptive, uncomfortable, and shocking. A scroll through her Instagram page (@vodkaserengeti)–home to her bold images– complements her self-assessment. In a ghostly diptych, VODKASERENGETI becomes Persona Non Grata (2017), an allegorical figure who, in this set, instructs the observer to “make space to mourn past selves, lost selves, fictional selves.” The character appears, she says, in a state of limbo where there’s difficulty in processing and coping with things unsaid and unaddressed – “individually and collectively as a nation.” Each transitional state calls for an enlightened consciousness and allows rebirths to take form.
Born Port Harcourt, Nigeria, 1984 / BFA Rhode Island School of Design; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
“Home is where the heart is,” as the old chestnut goes. But where is home when your life has had a multi-continent trajectory? Ceramicist, sculptor, and designer Ebitenyefa “Ebi” Baralaye explores this question through his work in clay and other materials. He draws on the spirituality and culture of Nigeria (his country of birth) and the Caribbean (where he grew up for a time) to document and mediate his experiences in living in the Midwest and on both coasts of the United States.
Born Medina, Ohio, 1986; Studies at Memphis College of Art; Lives in Detroit
Hobo hieroglyphs and graffiti conversations of indeterminate age flashing by on successive railroad cars. Buildings, streetscapes, and the signature architectural details of long-past designers. The sun, rising in the east and setting in the west. Past histories, big and small, hinted at by countless physical marks or archived records. Every W C Bevan mural begins with one foot in its local environment and the other in the artist’s eclectic but highly coherent worldview.
Born Dallas, Texas, 1988 / BA, Western Michigan University / Lives in Detroit
“Sometimes I wonder if my work is really about performance,” Kayla Powers confides, offhandedly. It is a strange conjecture from an artist whose primary medium is weaving. Still, it makes sense when you realize how deeply intertwined Powers’s art is with her desire to model a particular type of relationship to the world.
Power’s work is determinedly local. She sources regionally grown fibers, and, crucially, she has developed the knowledge to create natural dyes from plants that she grows and forages in Detroit. Powers has learned these skills through a lengthy process of research and experimentation. Still, she is generous in making them available to others through workshops and how-to articles on her website. As she says, “being a good community member is important to me.”
Born Ypsilanti, MI,1990 / BFA Eastern Michigan University; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Ypsilanti
To enter the photography of Ricky Weaver, first, take a breath. Hold it. Feel it. Float with it. Exhale.
This instruction steadies you for the type of meditation experienced when observing Weaver’s quiet but complex image-making. There’s a spiritual essence felt as the artist unpacks concepts of time, identity and lineage through photographs that pay homage to Black women who have come before, are with her today, and are of the next generation. Stylistically, her salute to them comes by way of the gold trim that frames each image (a tribute to her late grandmother’s black and gold-framed bedroom set) and quoted titles of her images, because, as the artist says of her work, “This is collective; it’s not just me.”
Born Ann Arbor, MI, 1987 / BFA & MFA, Wayne State University / Lives in Highland Park, MI
Jessica Wildman Katz has been working on windows. During the pandemic, she and her husband have slowly been renovating the 54-acre Brownstown Township farmstead that has been in her husband’s family for generations. Katz has been constructing frames and screens for the window openings in the loft of an old garage, where she plans to dry the lavender that grows on the property. It’s been an iterative process and not at all unlike the way she approaches her artwork—foregrounding material, experimenting with form, fusing utility and history.
Katz’s most recent project, Things Being Felt (2018-19), began with an epiphany. While looking at a stack of Metro cards from an unhappy year-and-a-half living in New York, Katz finally recognized a use for a collection of wool roving she’d amassed: she would felt the cards. The project grew to include a multitude of items representing fraught experiences in Katz’s life—the types of memories many of us try to forget, but which are, ultimately, the bedrock of being human. The items are also preposterously unfeltable: strappy shoes similar to a pair she once attempted to steal from her sister, a bra reminiscent of a bikini top that she stuffed as a teenager and inadvisably wore swimming, a copper rose gifted by a borderline stalker.
Objective: Require the Wayne County Commission to follow an open and transparent process when appointing board members to the Wayne County Art Institute Authority.
Why we’re doing this: To allow the Art Institute Authority to draw from a broader pool of qualified applicants, and hence permit it to hold the DIA to higher standards of delivery.
Actions to date: we wrote to the Art Institute Authority requesting that the term limits for the board members be added to the Wayne County Art Institute Authority Home Page. In practice, this also required that term limits be defined for the board members since previously their terms had effectively been limitless
“WE EXIST / THE FUTURE IS FLUID,” declared a billboard installed on Detroit’s east side in Spring 2020. In the bold design, styled to look like a neon sign at night, the words curled around the prominent central focus: the word “WE,” huge and proud in pink.
Designed by Bakpak Durden, the billboard was both a work of art and a promotion for a project that the artist co-curated: a citywide exhibition of five billboard artworks by queer and gender-nonconforming artists. (An accompanying gallery show would have included work by five more artists, but was canceled due to COVID19.) The centrality of the first person plural in We Exist points to something fundamental about Durden, a self-taught artist who identifies as transgender: their painstaking image-making is but one part of a broader effort to raise up the queer community they are a part of.
Objective: Require the Wayne County Art Institute Authority to comply with the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
Why we’re doing this: So that the people of Wayne County can hold the Detroit Institute of the Arts to higher standards.
Actions to date: we consulted with an attorney specializing in government transparency issues, and on 9/7/20, filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Wayne County for information on Art Institute Authority meetings and meeting minutes.
Outcomes: As a result of our actions, Wayne County created a home page for the Art Institute Authority which includes dates for upcoming meetings, members of the authority, minutes from previous meetings, bylaws, governing legislation, service agreements with the DIA, and other information.
Born Rantoul, Illinois, 1951/ BFA, MFA Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Painter Betty Brownleeʼs transition from landscapist to figurative painter took place more or less in the middle of her four decade (to-date) career. Tiring of scenic vistas painted in the 1980s and ’90s and wanting to inject more “reality” and “romanticism” into her art, about 2000, she turned to portraits, self portraits, genre, and still lifes. Introduced as well at this juncture is the prominent portrayal of women as subjects, in works she describes as a reflection of “the condition of the female body.”
Born Detroit, 1981 / BA, Howard University / Lives in Detroit
Multimedia artist Halima Cassells relates her artistic trajectory to the birth of her three daughters – Nele, Nia-Rah, and Nzinga. This is a perfect illustration of Cassells’s belief that creativity is a practice that is inextricably intertwined with life. Homeschooled by “hippie” parents on the East Side of Detroit before heading to Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse and Cass Tech, Cassells identifies a visit to Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project (Essay’d #109) as a disorienting, but ultimately life-changing event. “It was the first time I saw art living and breathing,” she says.