Motown masterpieces: 10 Detroit destinations for Black History Month art

Motown Masterpieces: 10 Detroit Destinations for Black History Month Art

Photo courtesy of Desiree Kelly Art via Facebook

By Lisa Green

February 13, 2024

Detroit’s Black artists deserve to be celebrated this Black History Month. From the late greats to the contemporary artists, we’ve got all the best spots to find their work.

MICHIGAN—With Black History Month, each February provides an important opportunity to celebrate the contributions of Black creativity. And nowhere is that easier than the Motor City.

Detroit’s Black history resonates from within the city’s legacy of growth and resilience. From the Underground Railroad to the birthplace of Motown, Detroit has a strong foundation of African-American heritage.

During the Great Migration of the 1910s and onward into the 1970s, around six million Black people migrated from the rural American South into urban centers across the Midwest and into the Northeast and West. In Detroit, Black migrants escaped severe racism in the South in favor of promising well-paying jobs like Henry Ford’s factories. Detroit became America’s fastest-growing Black urban center, growing from just 6,000 Black residents in 1910 to over 40,000 Black residents in 1920, and, finally, 660,000 Black residents by 1970.

Though Detroit projected a status as a “beacon city,” promising economic prosperity for Black people, it was not without racial tensions. Historic practices such as race riots, white flight, and redlining showed the adversity and oppression of racism that Black Detroiters still endured.

One particularly important (and lesser-known) part of Detroit’s Black creative history is Black Bottom, a legendary former hub of Black culture. During the 1930s to the 1950s, this Detroit majority Black neighborhood was host to plenty of Black entertainers of the era, with jazz bars and nightclubs on nearly every corner. In one of the most controversial episodes of mass gentrification ever to grace the city of Detroit, the Federal Highway Act of 1956 saw the construction of the Edsel Ford Freeway (I-94) and Chrysler Freeway (I-375), which obliterated both Black Bottom and its neighboring Paradise Valley in the name of urban renewal. But Detroit’s African-American population and their contributions to the arts long outlast torn-down neighborhoods.

The 2024 theme of Black History Month is African Americans and the Arts,” which focuses on artforms which are infused with African, Caribbean, and Black American lived experiences. This theme focuses on how much Black artists have contributed to the arts and used culture to preserve history, record community memory, and express empowerment. Special focus is placed on artistic movements like the New Negro, Black Arts, Black Renaissance, Afrofuturism, and hip-hop.

Looking for the best places to celebrate Black History month with art from Black artists? We’ve got you covered.

Center for African American Art at the Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward Ave, Detroit, MI 48202

The Detroit Institute of Arts, or the DIA, in Detroit’s Cultural Center Historic District is a beloved cultural institution to Michiganders both near and far. But fewer people know that in 2000, the DIA made history by establishing the Center for African American Art. This was one of the first curatorial departments exclusively devoted to African American art at any major fine arts museum.

The DIA began collecting African American art in 1943, after accepting a donation of prints from the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These donated prints included works by Sargent Claude Johnson, Dox Thrash and Ralph Chessé. Additionally, in 1944, a private donor gave the DIA the first painting by an African-American artist, Robert S. Duncanson’s The Drunkard’s Plight (1845).

For Black History Month 2024, the Detroit Institute of Arts will feature “Regeneration: Black Cinema, 1898–1971” exhibit, which explores the legacy of Black filmmakers and actors. It documents these films from the beginning of the medium through the Civil Rights Movement. The exhibit features historic photographs, posters, costumes, props, and interactive elements. Also included are contemporary artworks by Glenn Ligon, Gary Simmons, and Kara Walker.

Make sure to also check out the permanent exhibits of African art and African-American art across multiple floors. Iconic works by contemporary Black artists include Officer of the Hussars by Kehinde Wiley (2007), a non-traditional equestrian oil portrait offering a modern take on French Romantic artist Theodore Gericault’s painting of the same name, and Something You Can Feel by Mickalene Thomas (2008), a rhinestone-encrusted acrylic painting which subverts traditional ideas about the Black body.

Photo courtesy of Detroit Institute of Arts via Facebook.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

315 E Warren Ave, Detroit, MI 48201

Whether it’s Black History Month or not, one of the best places to study Black history year round is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Midtown. It describes itself as the “world’s largest institution dedicated to the African American experience.” With over 30,000 items in the museum’s collection, it’s also one of the largest African American historical museums in the world.

The most memorable experience in the Wright Museum is the permanent exhibition “And Still We Rise.” This 22,000 square foot exhibition contains more than 20 galleries documenting important events and eras across Black and African history. The exhibit moves from ancient and early modern civilizations in Africa and documents several other events across time, including the Middle Passage, the ships of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Underground Railroad, Emancipation, The Great Migration, and the Civil Rights Era.

For Black History Month 2024, the Wright Museum is opening a new installation in the “And Still We Rise” exhibition honoring the life of Judge Damon Keith. Keith is a native Detroiter who was a judge in the United States Court of Appeals. Historically, he had served as co-chair of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, alongside John Feikens, and was an important part of the tumultuous times following the Detroit race riots. The gallery focuses on Keith’s life, including his Detroit childhood, his military service, college education, law practice, and service as a Federal District Judge.

The Wright Museum will also include two photography exhibits for Black History Month 2024, “The Audacity to Thrive” and “Paths to Freedom.” “The Audacity to Thrive” includes the photography of Adreinne Waheed and explores African-descended people who continue to thrive in the face of adversity. “Paths to Freedom” includes photos and video from Philadelphia-based artist John E. Dowell. The exhibit reimagines the agricultural landscape that enslaved people experienced in their journeys towards self-emancipation and freedom.

Not to be missed is muralist Hubert Massey’s “Ring of Genealogy” in the Ford Freedom Rotunda. This thirty-seven-foot floor installation features hundreds of bronze nameplates depicting names of iconic figures in Black history.

Photo courtesy of  John E. Dowell via Facebook.

Detroit Foundation Hotel Mural by Charles McGee

250 W Larned St, Detroit, MI 48226

Charles McGee is a Detroiter that contributed deeply to the city’s art scene. Though he passed away just a few years ago, his career spanned 70 years and included many contributions and works of art. He is most known for his decades of arts advocacy, teaching, and curating, as well as being named the first Kresge Eminent Artist in 2008. His work is featured in the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Wright Museum. McGee was a legendary artist who encouraged peace, balance, harmony, and the desire to make the world a better place.

In 1974, Charles McGee created an iconic mural, roughly 60-by-40 feet, on the east-facing wall of the Pontchartrain Wine Cellars, now the Detroit Foundation Hotel. This mural was part of an ambitious public arts works program in the 70s, which saw muralists creating 14 large-scale murals throughout the city. McGee’s mural was a colorful geometric artwork with overlapping shapes, though it went untitled.

By the time the Detroit Foundation Hotel moved in, the mural had faded and crumbled away. The hotel sought to restore the mural with McGee’s blessing. Unfortunately, McGee was 94 years old by this time with limited mobility after a stroke, and in no physical state to create murals.

Muralist Hubert Massey, one of the last remaining fresco artists, took over the restorations in McGee’s stead. Massey had been taught fresco from assistants to Diego Rivera, the creator of the DIA’s iconic and massive Detroit Industry Murals fresco series. Massey worked closely with the original artist McGee, which included reimagining a color sketch based on McGee’s memory and fine-tuning the colors to McGee’s specifications.

After the hotel had spent $45,000 and Massey had used around 20 gallons of paint, the restoration was finally completed in 2019, with McGee still alive to see the results. You can see this iconic part of Detroit history for free, just blocks away from the “Spirit of Detroit,” Hart Plaza, and the Detroit Riverfront.

For more of Massey’s work, you can see a massive 30-by-30 foot “Crossroad of Innovation” buon fresco mural inside the nearby Cobo Center. Charles McGee’s work can be seen throughout the Detroit area; one of his largest and final pieces is Unity, a 118-foot-by-50-foot mural on 28 Grand in downtown Detroit.

Photo courtesy of Grazing Detroit via Facebook.

Design Studio 6

8626 W McNichols Rd, Detroit, MI 48221

The legendary Charles McGee may be dearly departed, but his spirit lives on with his daughter, April McGee Flournoy. Her studio is Design Studio 6, which formerly belonged to Charles McGee for four decades, located in the Bagley and Fitzgerald neighborhoods. The project first launched in 2020.

Design Studio 6 specializes in interior design, especially kitchens and bathrooms. It’s a full-service studio, workspace, and artisan shop providing interior design services, workshops, programs, and more. It is designed to foster collaboration and community involvement and hosts rotating exhibitions from local artists.

For Black History Month 2024, Design Studio 6 will feature the Emerging Artist Exhibition Series #2, which is curated by Larry Green and includes the art of 11 different artists. The exhibit runs on weekends.

Photo courtesy of Design Studio 6 – Detroit via Facebook.

The Carr Center Gallery

15 E Kirby St, Detroit, MI 48202

The Carr Center was originally incorporated as The Arts League of Michigan in 1991. It still serves as a multi-disciplinary organization providing world-class arts programming to the community, preserving, presenting, promoting, and developing African and African-American cultural arts traditions. The Carr Center Gallery is located inside the historic Park Shelton building in Midtown.

For Black History Month 2024, The Carr Center will be featuring BLACK, or Built Language Across Culture and Knowledge, an art exhibition curated by Daniel Geanes and Tia Nichols. The gallery will feature works emphasizing the language of Black culture, like Black love, politics, and existing as Black individuals, all framed within the context of Detroit’s inner city.

Additionally, the Carr Center will feature As I See, the third part of a series which focuses on the generational evolution and presentation of artists. The gallery focuses on artists between 30 and 60 years of age, with artwork focusing on the way the artists self-identify and perceive their disciplines in the contemporary lens.

Photo courtesy of Photo credit Gary Gully via Facebook.

Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum

6559 Grand River Ave, Detroit, MI 48208

The Civil Rights Movement has had plenty of artistic interpretations over the years, but none quite like the one of artist Olayami Dabls. This former museum curator makes use of the African cultural tradition of using beads as a silent language, ultimately evoking through a museum-wide art piece that the Civil Rights Movement was not one perspective, but an amalgam of millions of individual experiences.

The Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum is a non-traditional museum. It’s a century-old rowhouse, with Dabls’ immense collection of African beads covering nearly every square inch of the interior. Inside, the museum abandons interior walls and divides in favor of accessibility. It also has an antique bookstore and art gallery.

Outside are 18 outdoor installations, as well as the African Bead Gallery, The N’Kisi Iron House, and the African Language Wall. Several traditional African statues also make up a sculpture garden spanning two city blocks. Adjacent buildings are decorated in brightly colored tiles and mirror pieces for a truly one-of-a-kind assemblage art experience. Dabls shaped the materials of iron, rock, wood, and mirrors into traditional African art forms, designed to evoke emotions about the human condition. The sculptures represent the struggles of African Americans. Ultimately, the unique museum is a conversation starter sparking communal understanding.

Photo courtesy of Bianka Black via Facebook.

Murals by Sydney James

16065 Hamilton Ave #2728, Highland Park, MI 48203
2937 E Grand Blvd, Detroit, MI 48202

Detroit is becoming known as a street art destination, billed as one of the top 10 cities in the country for its street art. This feat wouldn’t be possible without the contributions of innovative Black muralists like Sydney James, a Detroit-born visual artist and College of Creative Studies graduate. She is the co-founder of biannual BLKOUT Walls mural festival and her work is featured in many major marketing brands like PepsiCo, Vans shoes, and even the Detroit Lions. Her mural work usually centers the contributions of Black women—and there’s plenty of Black culture to witness in her work around the city.

“Girl with the D Earring” is located on the side of the massive Chroma building and is an allusion to the infamous Girl With A Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer. But instead, the mural emphasizes Black beauty, with James’s friend Halima Cassell depicting the likeness of the iconic girl. It also honors Detroit through its obvious focal point of the “D” earring.

The Malice Green Mural in Highland Park depicts the police brutality victim Malice Green, a Black man who was infamously beaten to death by two Detroit police officers in 1992. The mural also features the names of many other Black Americans who, since 2014, have been casualties of police brutality or racism. By far, this is one of James’ most powerful pieces.

“Appropriated Not Appreciated” in Detroit’s Eastern Market. The mural incorporates a quote by Detroit artist and writer Scheherazade Washington Parrish: “The Definitive List of Everything That Will Keep You Safe As A Black Woman Being In America.” This quote is at the top of a piece of paper held by a Black woman—and the paper itself is blank. This mural was featured in the Murals in the Market 2016 festival.

Photo courtesy of Visit Detroit via Facebook.

Norwest Gallery of Art

19556 Grand River Ave, Detroit, MI 48223

The Norwest Gallery of Art, located in Detroit’s historic Rosedale Park neighborhood, is a Black-owned art gallery specializing in contemporary African and African-American works. Founder Asia Hamilton grew up in the Rosedale Park neighborhood and started Norwest Gallery to bring much-needed art and culture to the neighborhood. The Norwest Gallery also includes Womxnhouse, a residency for BIPOC women and non-binary artists and curators, with studio space, exhibition space, and housing all included in Asia Hamilton’s childhood home.

For Black History Month 2024, the Norwest Gallery will feature “Heavy Melanin,” a Black art exhibition focusing on African and African-American beauty and culture. The art within the exhibit will highlight the vibrant colors, intricate patterns, and symbolism integral to Black culture across both heritage and modernity. The artists included use a variety of mediums, including painting, photography, mixed media, and sculpture.

Photo courtesy of Norwest Gallery of Art via Facebook.

Avenue of Fashion

Detroit’s West Side has a lesser-known piece of Black history that’s experienced an incredible comeback in the last few years. Centered around Livernois between 6 and 8 Mile Road, the Avenue of Fashion is a historic shopping district of Black-owned businesses. It dates back to the 1960s, when wealthy African Americans began moving to Detroit’s West Side and University District. The district pre-dates malls, and in its heyday, was a destination for upscale, luxury shopping. The Avenue of Fashion went through streetscape renovation and urban renewal between 2018 and 2020, so it’s now more walkable than ever.

Aside from the plentiful options for shopping and dining options seeped in Black culture, there are more than a few artistic attractions. The Fel’le Gallery is the gallery of the nationally known artist Fel’le, who is most well-known for painting photorealistic backdrops at hip hop and R&B concerts. The gallery sells his rotating array of portraits, as well as offering special events. The gallery hosts paint parties, artist workshops, and other events.

Jo’s Gallery is known for its framed art, with ready-to-hang wall art and unique frames. The art available ranges from unique original creations to high-quality prints, as well as other artforms like sculpture and jewelry. Sherwood Forest Art Gallery is a family- and Black-owned gallery space, designed to be a centrally-located venue for people to meet both local and internationally-renown artists. They carry a diverse collection of paintings, prints, sculptures, masks, and even more cultural inspirations.

Eric’s I’ve Been Framed has been a popular location for Detroit-area photographers and artists looking to frame their work. However, it also has an in-store gallery and shop with plenty of original paintings, prints, art books, and more.

Finally, within the Avenue of Fashion district is a mural by Detroit native muralist Desiree Kelly. Her Issa Rae mural can be found near Kuzzo’s Chicken and Waffles on Livernois Avenue. This mural references Issa Rae, the creator of HBO television series Insecure and the web series Awkward Black Girl. The mural is an ode to a popular quote that Issa Rae gave at a red carpet event: “I’m rooting for everyone Black.”

Photo courtesy of The Fel’le Gallery via Facebook.

The Detroit Chimera by Kobie Solomon

1600 Clay St, Detroit, MI 48211

The Detroit Chimera is the largest mural in the state of Michigan. Located on the west-facing wall of the Russell Industrial Center’s building number two, this 8,760 square foot mural is so large, it can even be seen from Interstate 75. It’s even listed on Roadside America.

The mural represents the spirit of the city of Detroit, depicting a chimera, a mythical fire-breathing hybrid creature with parts taken from various animals. Within the mural, Detroit’s sports teams are represented through a lion’s head, a tiger’s body, and red wings powered by pistons.

Ironically, the mural originally went unfinished, because artist Kobie Solomon was never properly compensated by the Russell Industrial Center, who commissioned the artwork. A campaign on Kickstarter helped fund the rest of the mural.

Photo courtesy of Detroit Touch Records via Facebook.

This article first appeared on Good Info News Wire and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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