Round the corner on Grand River Avenue onto Vinewood Street on Detroit’s West Side and you’ll encounter a building covered in mirrors. The eye-catching Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum is a striking, immersive introduction to African material culture.
Step inside and an endless array of African beads line the walls from floor to the ceiling. In the center sits artist Olayami Dabls, who founded Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum in 1994, introducing this intricate community-based art practice to Detroit’s arts community. With installations like Iron Teaching Rocks How To Rust that punctuate the grounds of the museum, neighbors, tourists, and art collectors are invited to witness artistic creation and explore it up close. In contrast to a more conventional museum space, here there are no glass cases, guards, alarms, or wires. Every installation is created in the neighborhood and open to the public.
Dabls aims to make art that people can feel on a visceral level by using natural materials – iron, wood, metal, and beads – combined in a unique sequence and context. Initially selected as materials familiar to African cultures, Dabls has observed that their meaning resonates with visitors of all backgrounds and cultural heritage. What began as an effort to build access to art and origin within a community has transformed into a world-renowned destination committed to making art for the community.
As that vision expands, so too, must the museum and its team. After learning of the Bead Museum by word of mouth, Lorcan O’Herlihy, the Founding Principal of Los Angeles-based Lorcan O’Herlihy Architects [LOHA] had to see it for himself. LOHA had begun working on projects in Detroit’s Brush Park neighborhood throughout the year, and was intrigued by the stories he’d heard of the Bead Museum. After meeting Dabls and discussing his vision, O’Herlihy made an unprecedented offer of pro bono support for the next phase of the museum’s iteration.
With the support of LOHA and individual collaborators like L.A.-based artist Corazon Del Sol, Dabls was able to catalyze a generous $100,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to repair structural damage to three rowhouses on the museum's grounds, including putting up a new roof.
Now, LOHA is engaged in further revitalizing the museum and in securing Dabls' artwork, as well as his significant collection of African artifacts. Through an on-going Patronicity crowdfunding campaign and an upcoming benefit event, Dabls and LOHA will complete the renovation of the three townhouses' interiors, making way for exhibition space, multi-use community space, an artist-in-residence, and a remodeled bead store. The partnership between Dabls and LOHA aims to sustain and grow the cultural gem that Dabls has created.
We sat down with Olayami Dabls and Lorcan O’Herlihy, FAIA, to learn more about art, identity, and how people can work together to create change and preserve community.
What attracted you to the art of African Beads?
Dabls: Downtown Hart Plaza had different festivals that represented different cultures in the city. Those festivals brought international vendors here to the city and those vendors had beads with them, it was the first time I had really taken a notice to beads. I asked one of the vendors to sell me the beads he had on. Of course that’s something you don’t do in Africa and he took offense to it, but then he said, ‘My brother, I will explain to you why I will not sell you these beads.’
How did that encounter shape your connection to African beads?
Dabls: Those beads embodied the culture of his people, it was from that that I began to realize how significant beads are to communicating information to that particular culture. The beads were so intertwined into the culture of African people, if you remove the beads then you pretty much have destroyed that particular culture. I discovered that beads were considered magic and medicine. Up until then, we had no material cultures in this country that we could identify and say, ‘Hey this is from of the minds of African people and this is unique to Africans.’ When I began to collect the beads, the idea of opening a bead museum was there because I know I had something that was so significant.
Why did you choose to bring the museum in Detroit?
Dabls: If this museum exists in the community then people could come here and look. Just by looking, they automatically lower some stress because they’ve taken a venture into another world for a brief moment. When those types of exposures occur, you don’t need a week worth of them; it’s instant. People drive on the street and they’re impacted by this place just by seeing it. If it’s in the community, there’s not a cost to come see it. But if you have a museum in a so-called cultural center, it’s going to cost a lot of money to get there.
How has the neighborhood changed over time?
Dabls: I didn’t go for the formulaic location. The city of Detroit was struggling for its life when I did my first installation here. This area was the zip code that had the most amount of crime in it, people that I knew thought that I was crazy because I moved here. I knew that wherever I built it, it would become a success.
What they see here is something that’s in them, it’s not me. Art can bring people together and it can illustrate the best in us.
Has the community influenced your art?
Dabls: People would just walk up to me and say, ‘I know you’re busy, but I want to tell you I like this.’ I began to realize that this is the person who this is for, so I would turn around with a smile on my face and talk to them. What they see here is something that’s in them, it’s not me. Art can bring people together and it can illustrate the best in us. The people of Detroit have been the greatest supporters of this museum.
What other kind of support have you received?
Dabls: We’ve gotten the attention of the world by doing what we’re doing here. It’s major to me that places are saying, ‘I can help’ now. It means that the idea has really moved away from just DABLS, it involves a lot more people now. If people want to help you, allow them to.
In what ways did the vision and mission of the museum inspire you to get involved?
Lorcan: I was inspired by Dabls’ commitment to creating a gathering space for the community to educate them about African material culture. I was drawn to the way that he used his art as a means of bringing people together to learn about where we all originated from. As someone who has always had a strong connection to the arts, having spent a number of years as a painter and sculptor, I felt a strong affinity with Dabls. We are like-minded through our shared interest in material exploration as well as social and civic connectivity.
Have you experienced unique challenges along this path? If so, how are you navigating them?
Lorcan: The challenges of this project have not come from the project itself, or the individuals involved, rather they have been in finding the funding to make the project a reality. We hope that the fundraising event and crowdfunding campaign will strengthen awareness of what is already such an important community resource, and encourage people to help make Dabls’ vision a reality.
How has the community and the museum influenced your broader architectural work?
Lorcan: It has been an important part of extending our commitment to engaging the city. Dabls’ Bead Museum has been a gateway to Detroit and its people, and has played an important role in the work that we are doing there. More and more, The Bead Museum is being recognized as an example of how neighborhoods can be strengthened around existing landmarks, and how these principles can extend to other parts of the city. This reinforces my profound belief that architecture can be a catalyst for change.
What function do you envision this space having moving forward?
Lorcan: Our hope is that the museum functions exactly as Dabls has intended, to be a gathering space for the people of Detroit to learn about African material culture.
What’s the next phase for the museum?
Dabls: What occurs between the goal is more important than reaching the goal. After 400 years of enslavement and colonization, I want to build something that appeals to the ancestral palette of the African people, that will inspire and motivate our young people. That’s why this place exists. We’re trying to have a place where we can do programs for people in the immediate community.
Join Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum and its supporters for a party at Wasserman Projects on December 16 from 4:00 PM to 8:00 PM to celebrate the work and impact that art has had on the community, as well as to raise the remaining funds needed for the project. Reserve your tickets here, or make a contribution directly to the Patronicity fundraising campaign. The campaign must reach its goal of $50,000 by December 31, and when it does, the Michigan Economic Development Corporation will match the $50,000 raised to help complete the renovation.