Dabls walks us through his outdoor Detroit African art project
Find out why Quentin Tarantino is a fan.
Published: June 17, 2014
“When we started here, this area was just a complete dumping ground,” a man known simply as Dabls tells us (“No one knows my first name — that name is never used,” he explains. For the record, it is Olayami). These days, Dabls’ African Bead Gallery and MBAD Museum ("MBAD," we're told, is an acronym of his four children) is part of a sprawling outdoor art installation near Grand River Avenue and West Grand Boulevard. The site includes impossible-to-miss buildings covered in pieces of mirrors and brightly colored paint, a sculpture garden made out of reclaimed materials, and traditional African statues. In August, it will have been 14 years since Dabls set out to create what is now arguably one of Detroit’s most iconic destinations, which draws visitors from the world over — including filmmaker Quentin Tarantino as a recent guest.
When he started his museum, Dabls was an African bead collector and salesman who spent time working at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. He had been interested in African beads since 1985, when he met a trader at the Michigan State Fair. “For 45 minutes, he was talking about the significance of the beads, and I was hooked,” Dabls says. The U.S. dollar made it to Africa in the 1980s, and before that, beads were used as currency. Dabls got in at the right time — Japan began snatching up African beads as well. Some of the beads in his collection are more than 300 years old.
When Dabls got an idea to establish a museum dedicated to his more valuable beads, a woman donated the two buildings on Grand River to him in 1996 — on a handshake — for him to use. Dabls envisoned the building as a museum and a bead store. But when a collapsed roof caused delays on the museum aspect, Dabls got an idea to do something more, noting that while Detroit had Mexican, Polish, and Italian neighborhoods, there was no African town — despite Detroit being mostly African-American. Those other communities developed organically by nature of immigration, though, and African Detroiters were distanced from their native culture by nature of arriving in America through slavery. “I didn’t want to do something that was contrived,” Dabls says. “I had to be a bit more sophisticated.”
So Dabls set out creating his outdoor art installation. Titled “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust,” the installation is a metaphor involving the relationship of three elements — iron, rock, and wood.
“When I was working at the Museum of African American history, one of the most difficult things to talk about was the exhibit on the civil rights decade,” Dabls says. In the 1980s, when he worked at the museum, the civil rights struggle was still fresh in some people’s minds. “People have their own point of view, and it’s often not included. I was constantly being interrupted,” he says. It was only after recalling reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm in school that Dabls got the idea that social and political commentary would be easier for people to understand through metaphor.
Dabls walks us through his creation, which has a sort of logic to it that makes perfect sense as he explains it. “Rust is a state of deterioration. So if you’re rusting, that means you’ve given up something, and what that something is, is your culture identity,” Dabls says. “The whole purpose of iron making everyone learn to rust is that they wanted to mimic or assimilate themselves.”
It’s not hard to glean which cultures the different elements personify. One installation features a table set up with silverware and a large cement cake in the middle. “This is Iron teaching Rocks table manners,” Dabls says. “Rocks ate with their hands. Sociologists have discovered that if you eat with your hands out of a common bowl, your bond is much tighter. Plus when the tip of your finger touches your lip, the saliva begins to prepare the food to be digested. But when an iron object does that, the opposite occurs.” Another installation features wood, banished to a reservation with a casino made out of paint cans.
Yet another installation features filing cabinets wrapped in a thick metal cable. “Iron frees people, but it locks the history of those it freed in these filing cabinets, and surrounded them with a moat,” Dabls says.
We ask Dabls if he considers himself a historian. He prefers to use the term storyteller. “I can get away with a lot as a storyteller,” he says. “As a historian, there’s all these folks out there challenging what I say. History is told best as stories or mythologies.”
Dabls shows us one of his sculptures, a figure with nails driven into it that is meant to bring good fortune and ward off evil. “Every time you drill a piece of iron into it, you ask it to do certain things,” Dabls says. Dabls asked that the city wouldn’t take notice of his project, because he did not seek proper permits. He also asked that graffiti artists wouldn’t tag it and that vandals wouldn’t destroy it. Fourteen years in, and no one has interfered with his project.
“What I found out about graffiti artists is that they see me as a brethren, because they do stuff outside too,” Dabls says. “Ten years ago, it was a different kind of graffiti artist. They would tag anything — I’d see them tagging cars. The ones now, that whole art form has been elevated. It’s respectful now.” Dabls also credits the exhibit’s 24-hour access and free admission in lending itself to community respect. It could also be that Dabls’ garden’s meditative, non-confrontational quality offers a sort of protection as well.
When a man left a two-year stint squatting in a nearby house, Dabls was worried that it would invite destruction to his neighborhood. “When he left, he told all of his scrapping friends that the house was available to be stripped of everything of value,” Dabls says. “I realized it was a system: You take everything of value and along comes the guy who likes to see things burn.”
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