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Photographer, activist Leni Sinclair named 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist

Feb 2, 2016

Leni Sinclair’s camera captured the music scene of Detroit in the ‘60s and ‘70s even as she played a seminal role in the growing countercultural movement in Southeast Michigan.

Sinclair was born in Königsberg,  East Germany, and escaped to West Germany three years before the Berlin Wall was erected. She was 18 when she emigrated to America in 1959, settling with relatives in Detroit. 

Sinclair photographed musicians from John Coltrane and the MC5 to Iggy Pop, Janis Joplin, Bob Marley and many, many more.

She and her then-husband, John Sinclair, helped to found the White Panther Party, later the Rainbow People’s Party. They fought against the Vietnam War and racism, and worked to legalize marijuana and reform the prison system.

Now Sinclair has been named the 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist. She becomes the eighth artist to receive the $50,000 award in recognition of her contributions to the art, culture, and people of Detroit.

Sinclair tells us she was overwhelmed when the Kresge Foundation designated her the 2016 Eminent Artist.

“In my mind I’m still the little girl running around barefoot on the farm, and here I’m getting an award as one of the eminent artists of Detroit,” she says. “It’s very flattering and I just feel totally honored and humbled by this.”

"I sometimes refer to myself as the participant observer. I observed the scene, but I also was part of it."

Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson said of her, “Leni Sinclair both contributed to the social changes of the 1960s and ‘70s and documented the movement’s fleeting moments for posterity.” Sinclair tells us documenting and preserving history was basically her intention from the very beginning.

“I came to this country from another place, so I’m really not a native. So I looked at what was going on around me with a little bit foreign eyes, and what I saw happening in front of me was just all so important to me, I just, you know, I was lucky I had a camera so I could take some pictures,” she says.

She tells us she wanted to document her life in America to share with her family back home in Germany.

“I wanted to share my life, and this award from the Kresge Foundation is just the topping of it all. Now I can show off I made something of myself in America,” Sinclair says with a laugh.

Sinclair tells us that becoming a photographer was never the plan. She says she only ended up buying a camera because “there was really nothing else that was of any value to buy in East Germany.” Her only desire at the time was to simply document her life, but the hobby evolved into something more.

The Kresge Foundation notes that Sinclair “captured a pivotal era in American history when art and politics intertwined.” But Sinclair tells us that even after all this time, art and politics are as tightly wound as ever.

“I think artists always are political. I think most artists become artists because they have something to say,” she tells us. “I was involved in organizing things and I always documented what I helped organize, and I always had one foot inside and one foot outside. I sometimes refer to myself as the participant observer. I observed the scene, but I also was part of it.”

Sinclair became involved in Southeast Michigan’s growing countercultural movement in the early ‘60s, when she joined the Students for a Democratic Society as a student at Wayne State University. She tells us she admired people like Tom Hayden and others involved in the civil rights movement.

“So I was radical,” she says. “That’s what they called us, we were radical.”

"I looked at what was going on around me with a little bit foreign eyes, and what I saw happening in front of me was just all so important to me ... I was lucky I had a camera so I could take some pictures."

When she met John Sinclair, she says radicalism took on a new tone.

“It did not involve going to meetings and demonstrating with placards and stuff, it involved working and creating a whole new society that we could feel comfortable in. And of course that included being against wars and against racism and against poverty.”

Sinclair’s collection has been said to now include some 100,000 photos, but she tells us that number is a little deceiving.

“For instance, I have a proof sheet, a contact sheet, of my pictures of Jimi Hendrix, and really only one came out real nice,” she says. “I have 100,000 negatives and slides probably, but God only knows how many of those are good and usable and good enough to save.”

Sinclair is confident that the $50,000 award from the Kresge Foundation will go a long way to making as many of her photos publicly available as possible, and she’s thankful the award came when it did.

“This award … it’s like a light at the end of the tunnel. I can see where maybe I will get done at least most of the stuff that needs to be done and that only I can do before I pass or before my memory fades,” she says. “It couldn’t come a minute too soon … because every year I might forget a few more of the names or people I used to know, so it’s just perfect. It’s just, for me, it’s just like a divine interference that it’s happening to me at this point in my life, you know?”

Leni Sinclair is the 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist. Along with the $50,000 award, the honor includes an artist monograph that will chronicle her life and portfolio. It will be released later this year.