143 Halima Afi Cassells

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.

Fast forward a quarter-century, and Cassells is creating Indigo Children (2020), her own living and breathing installation in the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Sosnick Courtyard. In the work, tendrils of interwoven fabric wrap energetically around the austere metal railings along the park’s street frontage in homage to the social, cultural, historical, and metaphorical power of hair braiding. The fabric was mostly recycled or swapped, and then dyed with natural indigo in a “circle of love” consisting of numerous artist friends. The indigo-blue color is an acknowledgment of the moment of grief we are collectively experiencing, but the braids, woven together, speak to the strength of community.

The work is also partly autobiographical; as Cassells writes, “As a child, I would sit on the floor as my older cousin would gently part, oil, and cornrow my hair. It was a weekly ritual that I looked forward to, a place where I felt loved and held– as we would imagine together the fantastic new style for the next week together. As I grew older, I took my cousin’s position and braided my sister’s and then my daughters’ hair.” Now her oldest Daughter, Nele, is the expert braider in the family.

Nele’s birth in 2004 found Cassells living in Brooklyn and working with friend Chon Cousins on a mural tribute to Marcus Garvey. Like many cities, Brooklyn has a street named in Garvey’s name, but Cassells realized that she was typical in that she knew little about the Jamaican-born, Pan-Africanist political activist and entrepreneur. Painting the mural was a way to find out more about the man behind the name. Since this mural, Cassells’s art has taken many forms, but learning and storytelling are a constant subtext – as might be expected from someone with a BA in English from Howard, with a minor in Education.

If Nele’s arrival signaled the start of a period of mural painting for Cassells, then Nia-Rah’s birth in 2011 foreshadowed a moral dilemma. Now living in Detroit, and running a commercial mural-painting operation, Cassells had just received her largest commission to date (on the former Dalgleish Cadillac Building) when she became struck by the environmental cost of the art she was creating. In the end, she compromised,completing the mural but using every drop of paint and recycling every else. But when the mural was complete, Cassells determined that she would become conscious of her work’s impact on all of the communities it interacted with, not just the human ones. The most obvious effect of this creative realignment was Cassells’s use of found, swapped, and recycled materials in works such as the dream-catcher inspired Detroit Day Dream (2011) and Sweet Pies (2013).

Subsequently, Cassells brought together the ideas of the swap and community in the One Mile Free Market of Detroit Swap (2014), a periodic event in her North End neighborhood. A more intimate spin-off project from this was the Fashion Shoot Swap Meet (2017), in which Halima and a small group of friends would each bring a selection of clothes and fashion items that would be shared and the results photographed. Clearly, the participants were modeling a form of sociality as much as they were modeling clothes, and the project reinforces the feeling that Cassells’s overarching mission is to use art to produce the life she wants for herself and those around her.

In 2018, the birth of her third daughter, Nzinga, found Cassells asking, “What’s next?” before heading in the direction of large-scale, collaboratively-produced installations such as 2019’s Indigo Road Open and 2020’s Indigo Children. Like many artists, she is currently pondering how to creatively channel the positive aspects of the current pandemic. One particular interest is the growing desire for a reimagined sense of community, or as she wrote about her recent installation, “to envision and take action as we walk together into a more just and loving world where everyone’s humanity is visible.”