WEST SIDE: GRAND RIVER -WEST GRAND BLVD.
Passersby can’t miss the enchanted space nearthe corner of West Grand Blvd. and Grand River. Three buildings bedazzled with mirrors and colorful murals, surrounded by African-inspired art installations, attract national and international visitors to Dabls African Bead Museum.
“It’s like a magical mystery tour,” said a tourist disembarking from an air-conditioned chartered coach parked on the dead-end stem of Vinewood street that leads past the mirrored murals and art installations and intothe gallery’s entrance.
This institution is the life work of Olayami Dabls, the curator and visionary behind the art and gallery space.
“African art is normalized when it is a part of the marketplace,” he said of the tour groups that visit daily and of the partnerships he has forged with the likes of the Knight Foundation and Cranbrook Art Museum.
The museum’s creations are part of a Cranbrook Art Museum series that features various artists and their works throughout metro Detroit. It’s called “Landlord Colors: Material Detroit” and runs through October 6.
As important to Dabls is working with community organizations including Sidewalk Detroit and the Heritage Works dance troupe.
Dabls said his displays center on the essential elements of human cultural development – rock, wood, iron and glass or mirrors.
His seminal outdoor exhibit is “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust.” Rows of chairs peopled with painted stone faces are the “audience” symbolizing the African experience in America. The older element, rock, is being influenced and culturally degraded by the newer element, iron.
This outdoor space is open and accessible for the community to enjoy or build upon 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Volunteers and neighbors can be found outside building additions to the site or constructing massive art installations for partner arts groups or clients like the Eastern Market.
Inside the gallery building, the walls wear strands and strings of beads, textiles and other “African material culture” – each item telling a story all its own.
The oldest beads, displayed in the wraparound glass showcase overflowing with findings and adornments, are thought to be 2,000-year-old blue Moroccan glass.
Sales in the gallery support the museum’s mission as does the donation box at the entrance.
Dabls said in addition to this location, he’s also a collector with archives in the digital space, catalogs that are accessible to the world.
“I began taking photos of objects in the early ‘70s and I have more than 70,000 images on Flicker,” he said.
The museum operations are made possible by volunteers, like “Abdul” who says he comes in when he’s not on call at his Ford Field job. He got involved when his father did carpentry work on the buildings and says he enjoys pitching in and helping to build the art installations.
Former social worker Celeste Wakeley is also a part of the museum community, working with event production and vendors.
“Being around this African art triggers something in my DNA,” she said. The museum’s mission to preserve and promote African culture motivates her.
The museum is in the midst of an expansion. A new gallery space just opened, made possible by a $200,000 fundraising campaign that financed needed repairs and a public restroom. He’s kicking off phase II to raise $300,000 for additional renovations, in partnership with Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects and Allied Media Projects developers to provide “space for African-based exhibitions and arts education programs for local children and community groups.”
For more info on the ongoing exhibit in conjunction with Cranbrook Art Museum, visit: https://cranbrookartmuseum.org/exhibition/material-detroit/
Dabl’s MBAD African Bead Museum is located at 6559 Grand River Ave, Detroit. 313.898.3007. Gallery hours are noon to 7 p.m. Mon.-Sat.