Access to one’s culture and history plays a significant role in personal identity and is a source of profound community connection and mutual understanding. It tethers us to the world and to each other. For hundreds of years, African Americans had no direct access to the cultures and histories from which they came, particularly traditional material culture. This absence was felt deeply by 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist Olayami Dabls, whose work as a visual storyteller, placemaker, muralist, and educator has altered the physical and psychological landscape of Detroit to the benefit of all.
“If you mimic or assimilate to someone else’s culture, then your own culture deteriorates,” says Dabls who, for more than 45 years, has dedicated himself to uplifting and celebrating African material culture as a way of connecting to, and communicating with, ancestral lives, traditions, and stories. As founder and curator of the MBAD African Bead Museum—a massive campus housing a sculpture garden with 18 outdoor installations, the African Bead Gallery, the N’Kisi House and the 150-ft. African Language Wall—Dabls created a vibrant and powerful symbol of Detroit, a creative community, and a beacon for thousands of visitors from around the world.
Founded in 1998, the MBAD African Bead Museum radically departed from typical museum practice. By inviting visitors to physically engage with its abundant examples of African cultural production—to touch and to hold history spanning hundreds of years—Dabls presented a model of community access and culture-sharing that to this day remains both rare and at the leading edge of what museums can and should be.
The MBAD African Bead Museum offers all who enter an undistorted African lens through which to understand African American art and experience. It also serves as a gateway to Dabls’ vision as artist and creator of more than 15,000 original artworks, including paintings, installations, jewelry, sculptures, and murals at Eastern Market and across the city. And, he is the author or illustrator of 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). Among the well-deserved accolades for his extensive body of work is a 2011 Kresge Artist Fellowship, the $25,000 application-based award given annually to metro Detroit artists across disciplines.
Dabls’ aesthetic exists along a continuum between the past and present that includes self-creation and self-definition, as well as honoring and building upon the work of the ancestors. It is also a path toward healing oneself and one’s community.
We are pleased to spotlight and celebrate the vision, dedication, and impact of Olayami Dabls with the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist Award.
Director, Kresge Arts in Detroit
Dabls has received both a 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist Award and a 2011 Kresge Artist Fellowship in Visual Arts.