Born Detroit, 1991/ Lives in Detroit
“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.
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.
Born St. Louis Du Nord, Haiti/ BA, Florida State University; MFA, Maryland Institute College of Art/Lives in Detroit
The second time I saw Gracie Xavier, I was standing in front of Eastern Market Antiques on a late-summer Saturday, admiring a turquoise vinyl couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Xavier in a kelly green dress. “I know you!” she exclaimed, as we had recently met briefly. Xavier was new in town, so the onus of a hello was on me. But I was mesmerized by the couch (and, if I’m being honest, not feeling terribly social) until Xavier’s bright greeting pulled me out of my shell. Everything about this moment, I’d come to learn, was quintessential Gracie Xavier—the vibrant colors, the warm approach, the being right in the thick of things, as if she’d lived here all her life.
These characteristics all underlie her most recent project, “Common Bond: Muslin Ladies Social Club,” (2018-present) a series of conversations/textile arts workshops for women in the largely immigrant communities of Banglatown, Brightmoor and Dearborn. Xavier designed the project after helping develop a vision and action plan for Banglatown, part of her work for a local nonprofit. During that process, many women shared that they felt isolated and desired spaces to connect. Xavier saw an opportunity to create that space through art. “People aren’t going to tell you what they’re thinking on sticky notes,” she often says, referencing a common top-down urban planning exercise. It’s when you break bread together or engage in other shared traditions that people begin to reveal, first, their stories, then their hopes and dreams.
Eau Claire, WI, 1985 / BFA, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, WI
/ Lives in Warren, MI
In 1972 the artist Alan Sekula walked towards workers leaving a secretive aerospace plant in San Diego, photographing as he went, until his actions were stopped by company officials. With this seminal act, Sekula signaled that the military-industrial complex, which existed on the frontiers of his daily life, could still be within the horizon of his artistic inquiry. Some forty years later, the artist Bridget Quinn follows in Sekula’s footsteps. Quinn, however, is not a child of the Cold War, but of a time of accelerating environmental collapse, and her concerns are not directly with the machinations of industry, but with the natural world. More specifically, Quinn is interested in what can be learned from “marginal nature,” that semi-wild world that is hidden in plain sight throughout the developed landscape. And that requires trespassing. As she says of her experience exploring Red Run, a small waterway in her newly adopted hometown of Warren, MI: “I saw an alarming number of “No Trespassing” signs, reminding me that I was not welcome, and that all land is owned. I have never seen a city so concerned with people stepping off of the sidewalk.”
Born 1987, Baltimore, Maryland/ BA, Lincoln University, PA; MFA Cranbrook Academy of Art/ Lives in Detroit
Entering the former industrial space of 333 Midland’s Annex Gallery, visitors can make out a magenta and turquoise-lighted dance floor peeking from behind a partition of silvery mylar streamers. Within, participants dance together to techno and ghettotech beneath door frames reminiscent of street stoops, and are encouraged to use the video cameras that interdisciplinary artist William Marcellus Armstrong—inspired by Latin America’s democratic, revolutionary, moviemaking movement known as Third Cinema—has provided. Prizes are awarded to the best dancers, all of whom are children. This live-taped event and performance-cum-social practice video is The 48203 Dance Show (2018). Continue reading
Born Karachi, Pakistan, 1973 / BSc, Columbia University, NY; MFA, UCLA, California / Lives in Detroit
An eight-foot-tall black monolith stands, 2001-like, outside an art museum in San Jose, California. To the naked eye it appears featureless, but when viewed using a phone camera, words magically appear on the screen. As one can imagine, it draws a crowd. It’s a piece from 2006, titled Seen-Fruits of our Labor, that illustrates many of the concerns of artist Osman Khan around that time, foremost among which was the need to look critically at the impact of the increasingly digitally-connected world through art. Continue reading
Born Royal Oak, MI, 1984 / BA, Naropa University; MFA, International Center of Photography – Bard College / Lives in Detroit and New York
Self-described “media activist” Kate Levy uses her extensive place-based research to explore issues of social justice through video, photography, and artist books. A central concern of Levy’s practice is who does or does not have access to means of representation. Highly conscious of her privileged social, economic, and educational background, she is determined to create working relationships that transcend this – even when it means giving up elements of creative control. For example, the 51 minute film I Do Mind Dying (2017) – covering water affordability and shutoff issues in Detroit from 2014 to 2017 – was developed in collaboration with numerous grassroots and advocacy groups. During the work’s production, Levy distributed cameras to people who lived in neighborhoods with high levels of shutoffs, and the subsequent material was merged with Levy’s own footage in a collective editorial process. The result is an urgent, and multi-layered, work that combines on the ground reporting with revelatory research to create a damning indictment of the web of injustice that envelops many Detroit citizens – recounted in the words of people in the thick of the action. Continue reading
Born Detroit, 1982 / BA, Howard University; MA, University of Chicago; Phd, Wayne State University / Lives in Detroit
Art, ever sociable, is always in conversation with something else. One of artist Maya Stovall’s primary interlocutors is the City—that ever-shifting concatenation of street, sidewalk, and neighborhood; of people, power, and capital. (This conversation started early; Stovall recalls riding her bike to the Detroit Institute of Arts as a child and developing an “obsession” with the street life she encountered along the way.) For the last four years, she has pursued a related obsession, enacting and documenting an ongoing series of sidewalk performances and ethnographic interviews made near the liquor stores that dot her eastside neighborhood, McDougall-Hunt. Stovall, who trained in classical ballet, holds a Master’s degree in Economics and a PhD in Performance Studies and Cultural Anthropology. She approaches the sprawling yet tightly focused Liquor Store Theatre project as a means to ask what she calls “monumental questions” about human existence via “close, rigorous, devoted, durational looking.”
Gina Reichert, Born Cincinnati, OH, 1974 / BArch, Tulane University, MArch, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Mitch Cope, Born Detroit, 1973 / BA, Center for Creative Studies; MFA, Washington State University / Lives in Detroit
There are effectively two periods in the recent history of Detroit art: before and after the publication of “For Sale: The $100 House,” the now infamous 2009 New York Times article that extolled the creative possibilities of minimally priced Detroit real-estate by relating the experiences of Gina Reichert and Mitch Cope, the couple behind art/architecture practice Design 99, and the artist-run, neighborhood-based nonprofit Power House Productions. After the article was published the pair were deluged with interview requests, and with e-mails from artists around the world requesting information on how to move to Detroit and participate. They decided that for a period of two months they would try to answer every media approach they received. At the end of that period their lives were irreversibly changed, and if the truth be told, so was the narrative of Detroit art. Continue reading
Born Battle Creek, MI, 1979 / BA, University of Michigan; MFA, Cranbrook Academy of Art / Lives in Detroit
Megan Heeres’s Invasive Paper Project is, in principle, quite simple: participants take vegetable matter from invasive plants, such as Phragmites, Honeysuckle, and Garlic Mustard, and use it to create paper. Continue reading
Born Royal Oak, MI, 1970 / Lives in Hamtramck, MI
On the once blighted northwest border of Hamtramck stands a well-lit building with a geometric pattern painted on its facade. This is Popps Packing. Graem Whyte and his wife, artist Faina Lerman, built Popps together. There is art in this building, and arguably Popps itself is an artistic undertaking. Since 2009, Whyte and Lerman have invested themselves in programming gallery events. They’ve built a sculpture garden and created a residency program, and they continue to activate their section of town by facilitating the work of artists from Detroit and overseas. This is about community. This is where Graem Whyte’s work is rooted. Continue reading
Born Nyadiri, Zimbabwe, 1969 / BFA, University of Georgia; MFA Notre Dame University, Indiana / Lives in Detroit, MI
Chido Johnson grew up knowing the meaning of struggle. His Methodist missionary parents were deeply committed to the Zimbabwean independence movement, and one of his early memories is of the family being deported for his father’s political cartoons. Continue reading