On any given day, residents of Detroit are traveling across their sprawling city to attend a lecture, see an exhibition, or participate in a writing workshop. Arts programs like these build on an already rich history of community in the arts. Artists and art lovers alike have their enthusiastic fingers on the collective pulse, one that hums through multiple organizations, DIY groups and project spaces across the city. There’s a shared understanding that the efforts of each respective group benefit the city as a whole, and will continue to do so in the future. Creating space for one another, as well as taking part in the dialogue of inclusiveness and accessibility, is at the cornerstone of the Detroit art scene. With the city constantly in-flux, people scuttling back and forth, developing new avenues of wealth as Detroit holds strong, questioning who art serves, who has access, and why this is so important to the growth and sustainability of a city. During a short, albeit jam-packed weekend trip, I met some impassioned individuals, all contributing to this vibrant community. Take a look at our recap below. 


Lebohang Kganye and Zanele Muholi for Crossing Night: Regional Identites x Global Context @ MOCAD

Day one of our #detroitarts tour began at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, fondly known by locals as MOCAD, where we saw Crossing Night: Regional Identities x Global Context, a group exhibition exploring the work of Southern African artists as they grapple with the effects of post-colonialism and the resulting political, societal, and geographical structures that shape their culture and identity. Moving through the museum, infamous artist and photographer Richard Prince has filled the enormous space with his signature Instagram screenshots, and, according to the museum, “redefining concepts of authorship, ownership, and aura.” As we exited, we were prompted to pop next door to Robolights, an installation created by known Palm Springs recluse Kenny Irwin Jr. The artist collected refuse and found materials from all over Detroit to assemble this madcap winter wonderland and according to the museum, “Visitors are invited to wander along pathways inside of a dazzling carnival filled with sculptures of towering robots, dinosaurs, alien spacecraft, and fantastical creatures from the future, all painted in a wondrous array of vivid colors and wrapped up in thousands of lights.”

Moving right along, we ventured to the Eastern Market, where the Red Bull Arts residency space unveiled its group exhibition of work and performances from current artists-in-residence. DC artist Holly Bass whose practice mostly entails performative work that incorporates dance and movement to explore ideas of space and social practice, presented site-specific installations and short films of local dancers. During her time at the residency, Bass took part in a variety of dance classes and engaged with local folks to activate installations, performances, and talks. She describes her project as a love letter to Detroit and black women, asking visitors what it means to hold space and showing how intentional movement can effectively alter the energy of place and self. 


Michael Polakowski and Holly Bass for Red Bull Arts (photos by Clare Gatto)

Alongside Bass, New York-based artist Hui Ying Tsai presents a series of sound sculptures, which are shaped like various seashells that, when touched, react to visitors in interesting soundscapes. Interactivity continues through a series of vessels that rest atop a spiral jetty, all holding water that also changes the soundscape of the room when activated by touch. Her explores symbolic storytelling through physical objects, from shells to pots, objects carry meaning throughout history, all the way back from the dawn of time. Tsai's work opens a dialogue about our collective ancestral past and how we exist in harmony with nature. 

In the final portion of the exhibition, Michael Polakoswki paints bright interior and exterior scenes, all teeming with narrative and traces of a figure who never quite appears. Crisply rendered and accented by a custom light display that alters the look and feel of each painting, Polakowski’s work blends surreal and illustrative motifs to explore the idea of “In-between” places. 

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Hui Ying Tsai for Red Bull Arts (photos by Clare Gatto)

As we continue on to day two, we visited the local DIY residency Habibi House, started in 2017 by local artist Noura Ballout. According to its site, their mission is to create “an alternative space where artists, curators, and individuals from different communities share and collaborate to collectively engage in the process of reimagining Home. Through community dinners, BBQs, exhibitions, artist talks and other programming, Habibi House is a mechanism of constructing bridges across communities for a stronger intersectional future.” From there, we visited the conceptual showcase of Nikita Gale and Philip Birch at Reyes Finn Gallery, and the site-specific window display by Cyrah Dardas at Room Project. To conclude day two, we popped into the Detroit Institute of Arts, which houses a massive collection of notable works from African American artists, as well as one of the largest mural projects from Mexican artist Diego Rivera, commissioned in 1932.


The Detroit Industry Murals (1932)by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts

Day three commenced with a visit to Hamtramck Ceramck, a collective ceramic studio comprised of four local artists Ben Saginaw, Patrick Quinn, Amber Locke, and Braden Baer, whose work strives to blur the lines of authorship and ego. The community studio, directly adjacent to their accompanying gallery space, Portage Garage, currently has a solo exhibition of Brooklyn based artist Carly Mandel’s work on view. From there, we ventured to Tyree Guyton’s famous Heidelberg Project, which has been the center of discussion in Detroit’s art scene since its inception in 1986. Created as a community initiative to sustain one of Detroit’s largest urban neighborhoods, the project is maintained entirely by Guyton and the local community volunteers. As the day came to a close, we took a drive over to the MBAD African Bead Museum, another outdoor installation and public project started by Olayami Dabls. Spanning an entire city block, the project is home to multiple structures, sculptures, and installations that celebrate African culture and heritage. Visitor participation and discussion are encouraged, as Dabls usually works on-site at the bead store. 


Hamtramck Ceramck Studios

Detroit has a long history of dedication to the arts and while national perception can be skewed by preconceived narratives, its artists have been here through it all: growing, learning, and embracing one another through a network of shared space and resources. As you exit the immersive muraled room by Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts, there lies a quote VITA BREVIS, LONGA ARS, which translates to, "Art is Long, Life is Short." This sentiment rings especially true for the city of Detroit. While its history has been nothing short of transformative, Detroit’s celebration of art and its patrons thrives, buoyed by an enthusiastic community ready to continue its legacy into the future for generations to come. – Jessica Ross