Detroit Art Review

Critical art reviews of Detroit galleries and museums weekly

2021 Fall Exhibitions @ BBAC

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center Opens this Fall with Two Female Artists

One of the most prestigious non-profit art centers in Oakland County, the BBAC curates exhibitions in their five spacious galleries, including professional artists and art students taking classes at the art center. These two new exhibitions: Leah Waldo: Memory Gate and Glenna Adkins: Modern Impressions,  provide some fresh and accommodating visual art approaches from both of these up-and-coming artists.

Leah Waldo, Installation image, BBAC 2021

The sculpture of Leah Waldo includes a large variety of materials like clay, glass, wood, and cement. The minimalist forms touch on an assortment of geometric shapes and forms.  The reoccurring vertical clay objects dominate many of the clay pieces. Waldo describes her work by saying, “I consider my work to be distilled landscapes – the essence of physical and emotional landscapes infused into an object. Each piece is a little pocket universe, a soft invitation for the viewer to simply inhabit the emotional space and the spirit of raw, pristine nature. Because of my intention, history, and instinct as a healer, the objects and experiences I create are healing spaces. These pieces are invitations to share intimate moments of my life.”

Waldo utilizes a method called glass casting, in which molds are made out of plaster and silica. The molds are then filled with casting rocks, which melt together in the kiln. Waldo likes to melt the rocks, so they just begin to fuse and clump together, a technique she arrived at by experimenting with different casting cycles.

Leah Waldo, Heartopener, Clay, Glass, & Steel

The oblong vertical form in Heartopener is constructed with low-fire terra cotta and as both cast and etched glass elements supported with fabricated steel.  This introspective and contemplative clay sculpture achieves a contrast of material juxtaposing the exterior self while the glass represents the interior self.

Leah Waldo lives and works in the Asheville, NC area and earned her degree from the College of Creative Studies.

 

Glenna Adkins, Installation image, BBAC, 2021

In the Robinson Gallery, Glenna Adkins introduces her work with an exhibition titled Modern Impressions and provides the viewer with a light palette of color and a moving arrangement of abstract shapes and forms. The artist makes her home in Cincinnati, where her longtime studio is located at the Pendleton Art Center.  These abstract expressionistic paintings could be viewed as aerial landscapes with deliberate contrast between large masses of color and fine lines.

Glenna Adkins, Lucere, Acrylic paint on canvas, graphite.

In the painting Lucere, the work takes on a straightforward landscape painting with a horizon along the bottom and a sky shape dominated by white and blue.  Here she lays down a base layer of acrylic paint using a palette knife and brushes, then comes over the top with graphic pencil and oil stick for detail. Glenna’s work has an attraction to designers looking to place a large abstract in a modern setting.

Glenna Adkins earned a Bachelor of Fine Art at the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Art, and Architecture.

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center, founded in 1957, serves the Detroit region’s visual arts community. The mission is “to connect people of all ages and abilities with visual arts education, exhibition and other creative experiences. The BBAC does this by offering classes, exhibits, workshops and events to the public, and their exhibits are always free and open to the public.”

In addition to the two exhibitions reviewed here, the culinarian turned painter, Mary Wilson, has spent years painting with flavors in her own premier catering company. Mary has found her way from the flavor palate to the artistic palette with an eye for color and contrast. In keeping with having student exhibitions, there is an exhibition of work by the students of Fran Seikaly an artist working with oil, pastel and watercolor.

President and CEO Annie VanGelderen talks about this past year. “Courage has been needed in so many ways this past year! Whether it’s about venturing out, re-connecting with friends and loved ones, or exploring your talents, the BBAC has wonderful opportunities for creativity.”

The Birmingham Bloomfield Art Center exhibitions opened October 1 and runs through November 4, 2021.

 

 

 

 

Shirley Woodson @ DAM

Shirley Woodson Celebrates Her Retrospective Exhibition at the Detroit Artist Market

Why Do I Delight, by Shirley Woodson, 2021, neon signage, photo courtesy of Detroit Artist Market

Shirley Woodson: Why Do I Delight, a solo show and retrospective exhibit honoring the work and life of 2021 Kresge Eminent Artist Shirley Woodson, opened on September 24 and will be on display at Detroit Artists Market until October 23. The thirteenth Detroit recipient of this honor by the Kresge Foundation, Woodson is an accomplished artist, a veteran educator, an avid collector; she has also been a mentor to countless young Detroit artists throughout her 60-year career. In addition to this exhibit and as part of a celebration of her many contributions to the cultural life of the city, she is the subject of a recently released monograph produced by the Kresge Foundation, entitled “A Palette for the People.”  She is also the recipient of a no-strings-attached $50,000 prize.

Why Do I Delight, Kresge Eminent Artist exhibit installation, 2021, at Detroit Artists Market, photo courtesy of Charlene Uresy

Woodson is a lifelong Detroiter.  Her family moved to the city in 1938 from Pulaski, Tennessee, searching for opportunities denied them in the Jim Crow South.   They prospered here and set down deep roots. Woodson says, “In those days, everyone wanted the same thing, I think, opportunity, opportunity.  We found it in Detroit and never looked back.”

In childhood, Woodson found her twin loves, art and education, and has devoted her life both to making art and to sharing it with young artists as an arts educator. Woodson graduated with an M.F.A. in painting from Wayne State University in 1958, followed in 1965 with an M.A. in education, which enabled her to pursue a career teaching art in the Detroit Public Schools, Highland Park Community College, and Eastern Michigan University. She later returned to the Detroit Public Schools as an administrator to supervise the art education program.  Peter Crow, who worked as an art teacher under Woodson’s leadership, describes her influence:

“If you want to say something about Shirley’s impact on art teaching in Detroit schools it would be that it was Shirley who set the high standard for art teaching in the city. She insisted on hiring qualified teachers and, if possible, teachers who were also artists. This was, I think, her philosophy. But it wasn’t necessarily new. She felt that she was carrying on a tradition of high standards in Detroit for the teaching of art, one that she knew as a student and when she was teaching.”

Speaking from the perspective of a former student, multi-disciplinary artist Elizabeth Youngblood remembers her first impression of Shirley Woodson in the classroom, “I remember her looking too close to our age, too young to be the teacher.  I also remember how much fun she brought.  Shirley believed in me making art before I did.”  Youngblood describes Woodson’s influence on many young Black artists as pivotal: “If she didn’t make a piece of art at all and only worked as an arts administrator who’s done everything for so long to make sure other people could make art, and kids could have some real-life idea that there are such people, artists, out there, that would be enough to celebrate Shirley Woodson.“

But of course, Shirley Woodson could and did–and does–make art. Even as she taught and mentored young artists, co-founded and led organizations like the National Conference of Artists, organized shows, ran galleries, and collected art, Woodson has maintained an active and productive studio practice. The current retrospective at Detroit Artists Market serves up a range of work the artist has created throughout her career, as well as some new artworks in a surprising variety of media.

Shirley Woodson, Beach Scene, 1966, collage, gouache, graphic on board, photo by K.A. Letts

An early work, Beach Scene, sets the table for themes and subjects Woodson has returned to over the course of her career.  Painted in 1966, the painting features shrouded female figures that face the viewer in the foreground, setting up a distant spatial relationship with the silhouetted presences on the faraway beach with a roiling sky overhead.  Compared to her later work, the palette is fairly monochrome, though specks of gold leaf give a welcome sparkle to the hazy surface. Adjacent to this rather subdued and small-scale piece, Dreams #3, from 1995, functions as a declaration of the artist’s intent to follow her own inclinations as a colorist and as a painter of signs and symbols.

Shirley Woodson, Dream #3, 1995, acrylic on canvas, photo by K.A. Letts

The curator of Why Do I Delight, Leslie Graves, has included a sizeable collection of oil pastels from the 1990’s in the exhibit, which seem to show the artist moving toward complete abstraction.  The perfunctorily rendered trees in these compositions barely nod at representation, focusing instead on flat circular planes and their relationship with each other. Woodson employs the premise of the tree forms to explore the interaction of the colors within the ovoid shapes.

Shirley Woodson, Green Vase Nocturnal for Toni Morrison, 2021, acrylic on canvas, photo by K.A. Letts

Three large paintings from 2021 show that Woodson is still actively exploring the parameters of her mature style, which is characterized by lush color, gestural brushwork and a flattened picture plane. Elements of the background and the foreground meet and mingle in a visual conversation. It’s only fair that Fauves like Henri Matisse and Raul Dufy come to mind when looking at these paintings, since they were among the first European avant-garde artists to make a study of African and Oceanic art.  Woodson returns the favor here, employing the visual syntax of European painters to suit her own–African American–purposes. Green Vase Nocturne for Toni Morrison is typical of this most recent work, a lyrical composition that suggests a twilight fish pool, the outline of a vase super-imposed and refracting wavey images, all surrounded by shadowy figures.

In a somewhat startling departure from her previous work, Woodson displays some new text-based artworks in Why Do I Delight, and in particular, has included a couple of neon pieces that bear witness to her lively interest in contemporary trends and her ongoing appetite for exploration. The wistful line “Why do I delight?” appears in glowing yellow,  taken from a poem that the artist wrote for her late husband Edsel Reid, while nearby, the words Being Pedestr-ian, in basic white, adorn the gallery wall and resonate with her wry humor, precisely describing what she is not.

Receiving the Kresge Eminent Artist award certainly marks a well-deserved honor in Shirley Woodson’s life, but based upon the work in her current solo show at Detroit Artists Market it is abundantly clear that her creative career is far from over. As she herself eloquently puts it: “The artist is always confronted with the next step.  You learn to see every step of the process as a question: What can I share with people? What do I still have to say?”

She adds, “I’m listening and waiting.”

Shirley Woodson, Blue Vase for Sarah Vaughn

Shirley Woodson Celebrates Her Retrospective Exhibition at the Detroit Artist Market through October 23, 2021

The Pescovitz Art Collection @ Oakland University Art Gallery

Selections from the Mark and Ora Hirsch Pescovitz at Oakland University Art Gallery

Installation image, Pescovitz Collection, OUAG, 2021

In general, collectors have little regard for investment or profit. Rather, art is important to them for other reasons. The best way to understand the underlying drive of art collecting is by describing it as a means to create and strengthen social bonds and for collectors to communicate information about themselves to the world and newly formed networks. Great collectors are often as well-known and widely respected as the art they collect.

Look at the Eli Broad collection, the Barnes collection or the Paul Allen collection, just to name a few.  Collectors like these are famous because they demonstrate talent in selecting their art. J. Paul Getty, an oil baron from Minnesota, started collecting European paintings right before the Second World War, and Peggy Guggenheim, the niece of Solomon R. Guggenheim, was an early 20th-century socialite who became one of the most famous art collectors in the 1930s and 1940s.

Dr. Ora Hirsch Pescovitz, President of Oakland University, and her husband Mark collected art for forty years before he passed away in 2010. What started out as a small collection by her husband in the early 1970s evolved into a lifetime commitment.

The exhibition opened September 10, 2021, at the Oakland University Art Gallery, and is curated by Dick Goody, Chair, Department of Art & Art History and Director, Oakland University Art Gallery.

Chuck Close, Self Portrait, Silkscreen on Paper, 2000

Chuck Close rose to attention in the early 1970s with his grid-based compositions that replicated a type of photographic realism. The basis for his work depends on a photo image made up of small colorful shapes but, when viewed at a distance, reveals the more significant intended subject, usually a person or portrait. It is the invention of these small shapes that sets the work apart.  Close just recently passed away in August 2021. Chuck Close earned a BFA from the University of Washington and an MFA from Yale.

Christo & Jeanne-Claude, Package on Radio Flyer Wagon, 1993

Christo Vladimirov Javacheff and Jeanne-Claude were artists known for creating large-scale, site-specific environmental installations, often large landscape elements wrapped in fabric. Christo and his wife and artistic partner viewed their work as conceptual, as best seen in The Gates in Central Park, NYC, where visitors would pass underneath steel frames supporting free-standing panels of saffron-colored fabric. Much of their work was done preparing for an installation, supported with numerous drawings and prints. Radio Flyer Wagon, created in 1993, is a preliminary idea created using lithography and silkscreen printing.  Christo passed away on May 31, 2020, in New York, NY. Their works are held in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art collections, the Musée d’art moderne et d’art Contemporain in Nice, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, among many others.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Thomas, Silver Gelatin Print, 1986

Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer, best known for his black and white images. His work featured various subjects, including celebrity portraits, male and female nudes, self-portraits, and still-life images. His most controversial works documented and examined the gay male BDSM subculture of New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Mapplethorpe lived with musician Patti Smith in his early years. She says, “Robert took areas of dark human consent and made them into art. He was presenting something new, something not seen or explored as he saw and explored it. Robert sought to elevate aspects of male experience, to imbue homosexuality with mysticism.” The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation maintains and manages his work which raises millions of dollars for medical research.

Peter Milton, Family Reunion, Etching & Sugar Lift, 1986

Peter Winslow Milton is a colorblind American artist diagnosed with deuteranopia after hearing a comment about the pink in his landscapes. He attended the Virginia Military Institute and earned his MFA in 1961. Milton is a visual artist of black and white etchings and engravings that often display an extraordinary degree of photo-realistic detail placed in the service of a visionary aesthetic. His themes include architecture, history, and memory, as he employs complex layers in the printmaking process. In the work Stolen Moments, the method of aquatint printmaking is used where the artist creates wash effects by brushing them on the printing plate with a fluid in which sugar has been dissolved. The plate is then covered with stopping-out varnish and immersed in water; the sugar swells and lifts the varnish off the plate. Peter Milton attended the Virginia Military Institute and earned his MFA in 1961.

Christyl Boger, Off Shore, Glazed Earthenware, 2004

The artwork of Christyl Ann Boger is largely idealized nude ceramic figures that resemble 18th-century Greek porcelain sculpture with aspects that mimic contemporary ceramics.  In her statement, she says, “ The pieces featuring figures posed with a variation on inflatable beach toys that reference the heroic narratives of Greco Roman mythology in an absurdist way.”  The figures are 1/3 life-size earthenware, often incorporating gold enameling and typical western patterns such as fruits and flowers.  She worked as a Professor at Indiana University and earned her BFA at Miami University and her MFA at Ohio University.

Phillip Campbell, Afternoon Escape, Acylic on Canvas, 1991

Philip Campbell creates paintings and objects that have a physicality about their presence. These are either assemblages or collages on canvas, and he works with wood, paper and cloth. Afternoon Escape’s abstracted landscape is an acrylic collage on paper with simplified shapes of colorful objects.   He says in a statement, “By completing this major transformation, I have become a physical reflection of my art and a living product of my life’s work to date as well as inspiration for my future creations. A completely changed, renewed human being. My renewal experience has been the topic of many interesting conversations, and because of the discomfort of the healing process, I have been acutely and constantly aware of my transformation.”  Philip Campbell earned his BFA from the Herron School of Art.

Installation image, Pescovitz Collection, OUAG. 2021

There’s a difference between buying art and collecting art. Buying art is more of a random activity based on likes, preferences or attractions at any given moment while collecting art is more of a purposeful, directed long-term commitment.  The Pescovitz Art Collection on display at the Oakland University Art Gallery provides the students and the public with a large variety of artworks representing a diversity of art forms and expression.  It is worth a visit.

This exhibition includes artworks by: Yaacov Agam, Philip H. Campbell, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Chuck Close, James Wille Faust, Sam Gilliam, Janis Goodman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Milton, Judy Pfaff and John Torreano.

Selections from the Mark and Ora Hirsch Pescovitz Collection, will run through November 21, 2021 at Oakland University Art Gallery.

 

Taurus Burns: Defensive @ Detroit Contemporary

Taurus Burns, install opening reception shot, All images courtesy of Kim Fay except where noted.

The recently reopened Detroit Contemporary, now located at 487 West Alexandrine in Midtown Detroit, presents new work by Taurus Burns in Defensive. Taurus Burns’ primary focus is on figurative realism and the influence of race, politics, and history on the self, family, and community. His autobiographical scenes describe systematic racism through the use of portraiture, anthropomorphism, and allegory. The black and white palette was chosen to represent Burns’ biracial heritage and a distinctively divisive world view resulting from society’s relentless subjugating treatment of the Black race. In this exhibition, Burns explores his personal experiences and struggle to get through that oppressive societal wall.

Taurus Burns, The Graduate 48×48 oil on canvas

Burns was 17 and had just graduated from high school when Rodney King was brutally beaten. Shortly after, the LA riots ignited when a jury acquitted four police officers for the use of excessive force during the arrest of King. As a young biracial man lacking enough life experience and wisdom to fully process these incidents, they were mentally stored until the events of last summer erupted to bring them back to the fore. The Graduate begins to unpack the terror and trauma of what happened in Burns’ youth. In a snapshot, he describes utter hopelessness while an apparent necessity for self-defense takes root. Attention to detail, such as right-handed brass knuckles and a metal railing painted in perfectly executed perspective, allows the viewer to meditate on this life-altering account.

Taurus Burns, The Panther in Me II 22×22 oil on canvas

Burns has been using the panther image, inspired by the Black Panther Party, in recent works. Burns often paints his panther wearing the stripes of a zebra—a term sometimes used to describe children who have one black and one white parent. The Black Panther Party practiced open carry armed citizens’ patrols, or colloquially “cop-watching”, to monitor the behavior of the Oakland Police Department officers and challenge police brutality in the city. The Panther in Me II is heavily textured in thick layers of paint. The reflections in the sliding glass doors are so well rendered that the viewer sees the front yard and a glimpse of shelving and pictures inside the house. The panther icon is subtly placed on a T-shirt while the subject examines a rifle, preparing himself, mentally as much as physically, to protect himself and his home.

Taurus Burns, Training Day II 24×24 oil on canvas

In Training Day II, one generation passes down knowledge and wisdom for responsible gun ownership to the next; the teacher concentrates while the student pays close attention. The thin silhouette of the baseball cap on the older man’s head and the bend in its bill creates a visually tangible object while the wearer’s greying beard indicates he’s the elder of the two practitioners. Since these pictures are monochromatic, the use of shadow and light is critical to effectively communicate the subject and the space it occupies.

Taurus Burns, Triggered 36×22 ink on gouache paper, image courtesy of the artist.

Triggered’s double entendre fires both bullets and trauma in quick succession. This piece moves, the shots rolling across the paper. Ink and gouache’s light touch reveals the artist’s hand at work. The stop-action sequencing suggests the shooter is following a moving target. The work appears unfinished yet effortlessly delivers its warning.

Taurus Burns, Figure Study I 6×6 ink on paper

The figurative studies are lovely in that they afford a window into how Burns works. With very little material, gestural lines with a quick wash of shadow demonstrate the artist’s skill. The figure is in perfect proportion, gently resting her knee on the chair. A swipe of black behind her head grounds the space. The finished artwork is the culmination of years of study and practice. Figurative being one of the most complicated subjects to render well, these drawings indicate Burns is in command of his subject.

George Floyd’s murder was the flashpoint for all of the weight Burns has carried since The Graduate. Nick Cave is another Detroit artist who was moved to action by the Rodney King incident creating his first Soundsuit to hide a person’s physical appearance to escape judgment and the subsequent physical and/or verbal assault. Walking through life trying to at once hide yet defend your intrinsic right to not only exist but flourish is exhausting, maddening. Burns’ current work is polished and refined, thick and expressive. Burns has perfected his narrative and become a masterful storyteller.

Detroit Contemporary new location opening night

After an immersion into theater production and socially conscious endeavors, Aaron Timlin and Detroit Contemporary return, installed in a gorgeous indigenous house in the heart of Midtown Detroit. He’s put together his opening season with artists he’s known and respected for years: Diana Alva exhibited in August, currently showing Taurus Burns, followed by Clinton Snider in October, Ray Katz takes over in November, and fan-favorite the Biennial Actual Size Show is on for December. The gallery is on the first floor of this architectural gem, with plans for theater and multi-media pursuits coming soon to the second floor. This new space is set to be a hive of creative thinking, making, and exhibiting.

As Detroit, and the rest of the country, regains consciousness from not only the pandemic but our collective societal impact on both the physical and mental health of our communities, these two innovators don’t just talk about change. They make it happen.

On view through September 26th at Detroit Contemporary
487 West Alexandrine, Detroit
Artist talk September 25th 4P-6P

Adeshola Makinde: Relevant @ Playground Detroit

The insertion of a work of art into the public sphere through mass media means is a dictum of Chicago-based Nigerian American visual artist Adeshola Makinde, who began his career as a self-taught practitioner three years. Having established the framework of a photomontage artist, “collage commissions” such as “the beauty is…FEEL STRONGER TOGETHER!,” 2020, executed for Nike, or “A year on from George Floyd: how laws allow police to use fatal force,” an illustration for a news report by the Guardian, recombine text and images from various print and media outlets into an art of political messaging that lacks ambiguity.

Designing work for reproducibility in the urban sphere, Makinde garnered public attention in Detroit in 2019 with a text-only black and white highway advertisement on W. Warren Avenue and Wesson Street. The rented billboard featured a found political slogan from the Civil Rights era, “We demand an end to police brutality now!,” writ large in white capital letters on a solid black backdrop, situated opposite a Coca-Cola bottling warehouse on the other side of the street.

Adeshola Makinde, “WE DEMAND AN END TO POLICE BRUTALITY NOW!,” 2019 22” x 11” feet, W. Warren Ave & Wesson St, Detroit, Michigan

As is well known, during the mid-to-late 1960s conceptual artists began to respond critically to how institutions shape our daily lives by incorporating language into art. Makinde’s practice extends some of conceptual art’s presuppositions, namely that art as text can be distributed anywhere: in fashion magazines, on walls, like advertising, in bus stops, or in social media contexts, in attempts to reach a wider non-art and art audience alike. A turn to language in visual art challenged the very nature of art, altered its appearance, often accompanied by a strategic insertion of text into commercial circuits of distribution. As part of a nationwide campaign with 29 billboards in 22 cities, “We demand an end to police brutality!” was accompanied by additional political slogans such as “We protest school segregation,” “Black power,” and “Free all political prisoners.” In this series, Makinde shifts a personal expression of street protest into a commercial context to broadcast messages of discontent even louder. To bring found Civil Rights era slogans into the context of art also pays attention to the work we do with words when we protest.

This becomes particularly evident in his recent solo show at Playground Detroit which shifts the premise of the billboard project into the space of an art gallery by working with text silkscreened onto canvas. Aptly titled RELEVANT by local curator Juana Williams, the exhibition makes a strong case for the continued relevance of a fight for social justice. As racial oppression has deep roots in U.S. history, the struggle for civil rights and racial equality began decades before the 1960s and it continues to this day. The timely exhibition incorporates the sentences from the billboard campaign into a plethora of twenty-eight political slogans, all of which stem from the Civil Rights era transcribed by Makinde off banners and hand-held placard signs seen in historical photographs of street demonstrations from the 1960s.

Installation shot, Adeshola Makinde, RELEVANT, Playground Detroit, Photography credit@samanthaslist

Upon entry into the long rectangular exhibition space on Gratiot Avenue near Eastern Market, on the left wall one can read “Support those who serve the people” and “We demand equal rights now!”. Text in white, sans serif capital lettering, is printed onto identically sized 16 x 20-inch black canvases. As an expression of protest and discontent, often without the backing of powerful institutions, letting your voice be heard is most effective in simple, concise, bold, and repeatable words. Makinde’s design choice echoes that typefaces in protest signs are often without a serif at the end of a stroke, set in capital letters, and feature a mono weight letter style without thick and thin line transitions as they ought to compete for attention in a crowded street or media space. The canvas fabric is neatly pulled around the edges of the stretcher so that the pictorial work takes on an object dimension. The wall on the opposite side of the room features the phrases “All power to the people,” “We shall overcome,” and “Equal opportunity and human dignity.”

Installation shot, RELEVANT, Playground Detroit, Photo credit @samanthaslist

Merriam Webster dictionary defines “people” as “human beings making up a group or assembly linked by a common interest” and “the mass of a community as distinguished from a special class.” While a linguistic message such as “All Power to the people” does not diminish in emotional force or urgency of appeal over time, “the people” as the entity that is addressed is a fluid category up for change. In addition, by using instructional verbs that issue a command (“support,” “honor,” or “free all”) and by employing the personal pronoun “we,” Civil Rights era messaging was both direct and inclusive.

Makinde’s citations are exact quotations without alterations to the language. However, the 1960s aesthetic of placards tended to be in black on white, often collapsing two messages onto a single hand-made sign. We might read the artist’s choice of white on black, instead of black on white, as an allegory on his own experience of being Nigerian in a mostly white suburban Chicago neighborhood where discourse, education, and history were written by white people. He refers to his practice as “a journey into Black consciousness” which is the result of a missed encounter: “My upbringing is precisely why I approach art the way I do. I was raised in the Chicagoland suburbs and in my younger years attended predominantly white schools. This is something that shapes my work today, due to the fact that it was such a stark difference from the life I led at home with my immigrant parents from Nigeria. By going to schools with this sort of racial makeup, I didn’t learn a great deal of Black history, if at all.”

One of the canvases in the exhibition, “HONOR KING: END RACISM!,” is accompanied by a T-Shirt and yard sign limited-edition with the same slogan.

Adeshola Makinde, “HONOR KING: END RACISM!,” Limited Edition yard sign, 2020

We can wear the shirt in our daily lives and plant the sign in our front yard. This allows us to participate directly in the performance of dissent, and it cleverly appropriates techniques from political campaigning for the purpose of protest art.

The exhibition has additional reach beyond the gallery space in a poster campaign. The slogan “Free all political prisoners,” alongside the announcement for the exhibition, is pasted onto twenty abandoned street facades in Detroit.

Adeshola Makinde, “FREE ALL POLITICAL PRISONERS,” 2021, 24 x 36 inches, Wheatpaste posters, various locations, Detroit. Photo credit Adeshola Makinde

Most of the locations are placed along the historic Grand River Avenue which radiates out from downtown into the suburbs. As one of the city’s main traffic arteries, it is a busy thoroughfare that connects the inner city to outer residential areas, reaching as far as Lake Michigan. Abandoned spaces and derelict facades along the Grand River corridor stand in stark contrast to the urban revivalism of Detroit midtown or downtown where abandoned storefronts with decaying commercial lettering are mostly an image of the past. The RELEVANT posters blend the political with the commercial, the artistic with the political, and the contemporary with the historical.

RELEVANT pays homage to how Detroit was a city where black people embraced black power activism much earlier than in most other cities, and it isolates those slogans that have the most timeless ramifications for a cultural movement that has its historical roots in African American activism but is by no means limited to it. Famously in Detroit slogans such as “We demand equal rights now,” “Vote for freedom,” and “We demand an end to bias,” were visible during the Walk to Freedom in Detroit on June 23, 1963, after which Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an impassioned precursor speech to “I Have a Dream,” advocating against civil rights inequalities, police brutality, housing segregation, unfair wages, and gender imbalances. Makinde’s sorting out of popular slogans with dated historical references (such as “Stop Jim Crow” or “Join the N.A.A.C.”) makes a strong argument for the continued relevance of a fight for social justice today.

Lastly, looking into the history of individual slogans, the Civil Rights era emerges as a movement with a plurality of voices. “All Power to the people” is a popular anti-establishment slogan employed since the 1960s in a variety of contexts by pro-democracy movements, youth anti-war protests, or other social movements. Initially used by young people to protest oppression by older people, the so-called establishment, it was appropriated by the Black Panthers to protest the rich ruling class domination of society by white people. The famous slogan “Black Power” is directly attributed to the Panthers whose radical ideology of self-determinism is not synonymous with King’s more inclusive dictum of “All the power to the people.”

Adeshola Makinde, “BLACK POWER,” Silkscreen on canvas, 16 x 20 inches, 2020

Over the past year, the language of protest has been in high demand and Makinde’s prescient show offers much food for thought. Who are the people, then and today? Who is fighting the good fight today? Are you part of the people? RELEVANT also offers up valuable insights into the history and the aesthetic of protest. Commentators have likened the recent political strife to that of the 1960s and expressed disbelief that the country has arrived at such a divided and volatile state. It is time for disbelief to make way for analysis. RELEVANT reminds us of the complexities of the historical moment generally referred to as the Civil Rights era and it shows the need to better understand the performative dynamics of protest and the rules of the language of dissent that fuel it.

Adeshola Makinde, Relevant, Playground Detroit, July 30-August 28, 2021

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