On a recent bike ride through the city I was floored to happen upon MBAD’s African Bead Museum, and the complex art installation called “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust” that sprawls throughout the adjacent field. Built by 2011 Kresge Fellow Olayami Dabls, it is easily one of the finest and most successful art installations I have ever seen. In fact, I was shocked that it wasn’t the very first thing I was taken to visit when I first came through Detroit last summer. Featuring iron, wood, paint, mirrors, concrete and many more recycled materials, the installation is both incredibly detailed and massive. Painstakingly created by hand, each piece of the installation is carefully painted and precisely situated. The overall effect is breathtaking.
The work is inspired by African language and culture, and explores the imposition of European culture onto the African people. One of the installations, called “African Language Wall,” features the written text of two dozen African languages. Another installation speaks most directly to the theme of cultural imposition, with hand-painted rocks set on chairs arranged as if in a classroom, as though receiving a lecture on how to rust.
In all sincerity my explanation of the installation is pathetic in comparison with actually experiencing the project in person. And furthermore, the bead museum — which was closed on the day I was there — contains thousands of rare and unique beads, and is often manned by Dabls himself. So for anyone looking to witness the ground-up beautification of Detroit, and meet a modern-day folk art master, make a point of getting to this masterpiece sooner rather than later.
MBAD’s African Bead Museum: 6559 Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-898-3007; mbad.org