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Detroit business has become a landmark

Jun 3, 2015

It seems every new restaurant, bar, or national retail chain opening in Detroit generates excitement in the wake of the city’s bankruptcy. Most are owned or operated by white people.

But Detroit has many black-owned businesses that survived the worst of the city’s struggles. One of them has even become something of a landmark in the city.

Driving the length of Grand River Avenue in Detroit is an experience in itself. It’s a mix of mega-churches, schools, abandoned buildings, some of the most interesting murals and graffiti you’ll find anywhere. And then there’s a block that catches your eye and is hard to explain. It’s been around 14 years and it’s the brainchild of Olayami Dabls.

Olaymi Dabls is the entrepreneur and artist behind Mbad/ABA African Bead Museum.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The Mbad/Dabls African Bead Museum is spread across two buildings, with a number of art installations in a grassy field that seem to defy reason. So why all this Africa-themed art here?

It came down to economics.

“I had a bead gallery, downtown Detroit. Moved here in 1994. Started trying to sell beads here and open and African bead museum,” Dabls explained.

But it was tough economic times. Beads weren’t selling. Dabls decided he couldn’t worry about things he couldn’t change and instead started working on art installations in the open field behind the business.

The art is wood, mirrors, steel, vibrant paint colors, and rock. It’s intentionally primitive, a departure for a man trained in precision work.

“I was a painter and pen and ink drawings. Plus, I worked as a detailed draftsman for about ten years and that’s more of a precise type of art and this is on the opposite end of that totally. No kind of precise drawing. Just do what you want to do.”

I noted there was a lot of chaos in his work.

An exhibit entitled 'Iron Teaching Rock How to Rust.'
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

“Yeah. Chaos is good. You need something to get the attention of the viewer. And if it’s too structured, they can be bored real quick,” he responded. Dabls says he wanted to tell the story of the energy between Africans and Europeans for the last 500 years in America in a way that doesn’t blame people for our history.

One installation is a pile of twisted metal in the center surrounded by folding chairs, classroom-style. In each chair is a chunk of concrete with an abstract black silhouette of a head.

“Yeah, the students are made out of rocks. The exhibit is Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust.  And, of course, rocks cannot rust, but you can teach people to believe pretty much anything you want them to believe. And they will.”

The Nkisi House.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

The largest of the art projects is a two-story building. It’s called the Nkisi House, with symbols from some central-African cultures. It’s believed Nkisi is an object which holds spiritual powers. Dabl says he asked for three protections from the Nkisi House.

“First, that the vandals would not vandalize this instillation, the graffiti artists wouldn’t tag it, and the city wouldn’t see it, because 14 year ago the city was not too receptive to installations like this. Now they’ve grown accustomed to this kind of art work.”

Even during Detroit’s crackdowns on mural art and graffiti art, the Mbad Museum and Dabls’ African Bead Gallery have survived. They just might be a symbol of African-American entrepreneurs and residents who have lived through some of Detroit’s worst days, and hope to share in the city’s new prosperity.

Support for the Detroit Journalism Cooperative on Michigan Radio comes from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Renaissance Journalism's Michigan Reporting Initiative, and the Ford Foundation.