One city block and thousands of beads: Olayami Dabls honored for unique museum
On the corner of Grand River Avenue and Grand Boulevard in Detroit, a unique museum spans nearly a full city block. Since 1998, a once vacant, debris-filled lot has evolved into the 18 striking outdoor installations and comprehensive bead gallery that comprise the Dabls Mbad African Bead Musuem.
The creator of that museum, Olayami Dabls, was honored this month as the Kresge Eminent Artist of 2022. The $50,000 award recognizes a lifetime of artistic contributions to the metro Detroit community. In his career of over 45 years in the city, Dabls has created over 15,000 pieces of art–murals, sculptures, paintings, jewelry, books, and installations including the museum's renowned centerpiece, “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust.”
Dabls worked as a draftsman at General Motors before a car accident led him to art for healing, and to over a decade of work at what is now the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Work in that museum offered Dabls a setting to pursue his passion for African and African American history and to hone his curatorial skills. But it also fed his drive to create something different, both as an artist and as a curator.
As an artist, Dabls turned to metaphor and to material culture to communicate African and African American history in a way that neither doubles down on trauma nor reduces Black history to a laundry list of “being the first to do something in someone else's culture,” he said. Materials like iron, rock, wood, and mirror present topics like the Atlantic slave trade’s Middle Passage in an accessible, symbolic, and contemporary form that borrows from the visual vocabulary of traditional African art.
And as a curator, Dabls observed that the traditional museum gallery norms emerged to serve a function tied up with extractive colonialism. The Mbad African Bead Museum offers an alternative inspired by Dabl’s respect for his ancestors and for his visitors.
"European museums had a purpose. They were there to exhibit the collections of extremely wealthy people who had gathered these things from all over the world,” Dabls said.
“So when I decided to do the museum here, I said, 'Okay, first I gotta do everything different than what the Association of Museums say that I should be doing,' which is having pieces highlighted, spaced," he said. "I decided to just, no, I'm not going to underestimate the people who come here."
As they walk through the outdoor exhibits at Mbad, visitors won’t find interpretive caption plaques to direct them toward a singular understanding of the art, which is okay to touch. Dabls said he trusts people to interact with the artwork respectfully, to find further information if they want to learn more, and to have an experience that is meaningful for them.
The extensive indoor African bead collection at Mbad also looks different from other collections: the museum and the gift shop are one and the same, and every one of the thousands of beads on display is available for purchase. Dabls has collected the beads since 1985 and estimates that some are 200-300 years old.
“I can sell things that have the history tied up in the pieces,” he said. “Because the signs say when you use material culture, you actually using things that people actually worn or used throughout their life, and their energy is in those items.”
Dabls describes himself as a storyteller, and he said he appreciates that the beads’ stories are shared and extended when visitors take them home.
“Our history is not lost to the past. It's tied up in material culture,” Dabls said. “I know that when someone purchased something here, that they will always be remembering of this place.”
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