The main installation, Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust, which Dabls calls a metaphor for over 500 years of history between Africans and Europeans, has been the subject of essays and documentaries, and a spark for cultural inquiry and debate. “If you mimic or assimilate to someone else’s culture, then your own culture deteriorates,” he said.
Dabls’ selection as the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist celebrates a body of artistic achievement spanning more than 45 years in Detroit, which includes the creation of more than 15,000 original pieces of art—paintings, murals, installations, jewelry, and sculptures. Dabls is also the first Kresge Eminent Artist to have won a Kresge Artist Fellowship (2011), the $25,000 no strings attached award given annually to metro Detroit artists across disciplines.
He became a professional artist in 1971 with a defining moment working at the International Afro-American Museum, the precursor to Detroit’s current Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. As resident artist at the museum, he developed his curatorial skills and a passion for contextualizing history through visual storytelling. His work there stretched well over a decade, and he pinpoints the museum as the place where early in the 1980s he traded his birth name for Olayami, a Nigerian name [pronounced O-la-yami] meaning I am worthy of wealth.
Olayami Dabls, Digging Out
Olayami Dabls, Mural at Grand River Ave & Warren Ave
Olayami Dabls, Nice Outfit, Installation at Harmonie Park, 2015
Olayami Dabls, bead drawings
MBAD African Bead Museum, Photo by Patrick Barber
Dabls has written or illustrated three books: Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust (Issue Press, 2018); The Story of Our Rights, How a Nation Moved Toward Social Justice, edited by Leila Hamidi and Corazon del Sol (Dabls African Bead Museum, 2018); and African Beads, A Coloring Book (Dabls African Bead Museum, 2013).
What most thrills the artist about being named the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist is that the award will help cement his long standing dream. “I’m excited about the money; I learned a long time ago, you can’t do much without it,” he said. “I want to guarantee that this place will stay around…People tell me this is a place to come and bring your children, to educate yourself. It feels good just to drive by. It means something to preserve that.”
Dabls’ next big project is in the works. In March, he will cover a shipping container with a new 90-foot mural set to become the focal point of another blighted city block, at the intersection of Dexter Avenue and Davison, in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood, a few miles north of the museum.
“His art is so powerful because it is the community,” said writer and cultural critic Keith Owens, one of the five panelists who spent months deliberating over the 2022 award selection. “He’s presented something that is really deeply spiritual and captures the spirit of the city.”