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Olayami Dabls, a storyteller with a paintbrush and a street-corner vision, named 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist


Visionary storyteller, creative place-maker and muralist Olayami Dabls has been named the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist, an annual metro Detroit award celebrating lifetime achievement in art. The honor includes an unrestricted $50,000 prize.

Dabls, who is 73, has been the subject of widespread acclaim for his transformation of two Detroit city blocks that he once labeled “a complete dumping ground” into a mesmerizing and unapologetically African-centered cultural attraction.

Art-covered building
Like the museum itself, the Nkisi House on Dabls’ campus includes a myriad of mirrors among its adornments. Photo courtesy Dabls

Visitors the world over have trekked to the intersection of Grand River Avenue and Grand Boulevard to see his handiwork. For Detroiters and travelers, the lure is usually the same: deep curiosity about the intricate and vibrant assortment of beads, African symbols, artwork and jagged-cut mirrors covering every inch of the MBAD African Bead Museum and an accompanying building called the N’kisi House. The centerpiece of the museum’s campus is a maze-like sculpture garden featuring 18 installations such as the African Language Wall, each painstakingly conceived and constructed by Dabls. He founded the museum in 1998.

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.

“The first people that used to come here were people touring the city waiting to see its demise,” said Dabls. “But it didn’t happen, and so they’d come here and see this place and say, ‘Aww, this is nice.’”

Man on ladder adding paint to seeming two-story high mural with prominent snake
A Dabls mural at the intersection of Grand River and Warren, about a mile from the museum campus. Photo courtesy the artist

The notoriety among national and international tourists was never a part of Dabls’ plan. “It was designed just to get people who were driving down Grand River.”

Today, the museum’s campus is anchored by a thriving retail space at its center. That’s where Dabls sits most days, selling and telling the stories of the thousands of beads, African ornaments and jewelry pieces that he’s amassed. Hints of his artwork as a painter are cleverly tucked inside the store’s interior, its windows and walls. Dabls won’t even venture a guess about the size of the store’s collection, and he adamantly refuses to label the pieces, preferring to let museum visitors find connection and maybe enough curiosity to spark a deeper conversation with him.

Dabls’ selection as the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist salutes a body of artistic achievement spanning a half century 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.

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).

Intricate line drawings of a dozen earrings.
Drawings by Dabls. Courtesy the artist

“Each of our Kresge Eminent Artists has contributed mightily to our artistic and cultural landscape, but Olayami Dabls is one of those whose work has altered our physical landscape as well,” said Kresge President Rip Rapson. “The mirrored and multicolored Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum and its adjoining sculpture garden shout to every passer-by that the human spirit is alive and dynamic near the intersection of Grand River and Grand Boulevard on Detroit’s Westside. Both in that monumental work and thousands of smaller ones, Dabls connects all of us to the story of African Americans and African roots while looking boldly to the future.”

What most thrills Dabls about being named the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist is that the award will help cement his longstanding 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; it’s kind of difficult to do that without a trust, and a trust without money is nothing,” he said. “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.”

Panelists said Dabls’ unique eye and approach illuminates the best of Detroit. “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.”

Satori Shakoor, another panelist, a 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow and founder of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, added: “To see a man create something that sits on a corner and becomes like a 24-hour gallery, where you can bring people or just drive past, to see that last and help transform the story of the city is amazing, and important to salute.”

In addition to the $50,000 prize, the annual Kresge Eminent Artist award includes the creation of a short film — which will debut online in the spring — and the creation of a monograph that will be published in fall 2022. (Each year the public is invited to preorder a free copy of the book here. A digital version is also provided for download at no cost and will be available after the book is published.)

Dabls adds his name to an illustrious group. The 13 other trailblazing Kresge Eminent Artists are: the late painter and sculptor Charles McGee; the late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave; poet and playwright Bill Harris; the late poet and publisher Naomi Long Madgett; the late composer and Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Director David DiChiera; the late photographer Bill Rauhauser; textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee; photographer and activist Leni Sinclair; harpist and educator Patricia Terry-Ross; jazz saxophonist Wendell Harrison; poet, educator and activist Gloria House; ceramicist Marie Woo; and painter, art educator and historian Shirley Woodson.

Olayami Dables in his Bead Museum with bottles of beads and necklaces on the walls behind him
Dabls has immersed himself in the histories of the beads he displays. Photo by Patrick Barber for The Kresge Foundation

The Kresge Eminent Artist award was started in 2008 to honor singular lifetime creative achievement and distinguished contributions in music, literary arts, and visual arts and specifically to the cultural community of metro Detroit. The award also highlights transformative impact on the Detroit cultural landscape using the arts as a lens of possibility.

“For decades Dabls has been developing a tremendous creative drive in the City of Detroit. Through the MBAD African Bead Museum, he has created a communal space for understanding through his own sculptural work and his collection of African material culture,” said College for Creative Studies President Don L. Tuski. “The choice of Olayami Dabls as this year’s Eminent Artist only solidifies the honor and privilege it is for CCS to administer the Kresge Arts in Detroit program on behalf of the Kresge Foundation.”

Dabls’ selection is yet another marker of a city that understands the importance of celebrating the civic contribution of artists in significant ways. “As long as the suburbs control the pocketbook in state government,” explains award panelist and author Michael Hodges, “there’s a concrete importance to awards that shine a spotlight like this, that deepen people’s education about Detroit and all the creativity that makes it such a tangibly complex and cool city. His work is fiercely original; it’s Detroit.”

Defining Dabls

“The story of what’s been done is more important than how I got here to this point,” he said of the past.

He was born James Lewis in October of 1948, in Canton, Mississippi. He moved to Detroit as a teenager in the 1960s. He earned a Detroit Public Schools diploma in 1973, and then an associate degree in drafting technology from the now-defunct Highland Park Community College. He also attended Wayne State University where he began to study mechanical engineering and art before dropping out. As is typical in Detroit, Dabls’ story includes an automotive connection, in his case a stint as a draftsman for Chevrolet.

The African Language Wall on the campus of Dabls MBAD Bead Museum. Photo courtesy the artist

Dabls became a professional artist in 1971 with a defining moment working at the International Afro-American Museum, the precursor to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, now one of the largest cultural institutions of its kind in the nation. As resident artist at the museum, Lewis 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 first name for Olayami, a Nigerian name [pronounced O-la-yami] meaning I am worthy of wealth.

Around the same time, he combined parts of his former last name, Lewis, with the first names of his four children — Davida, Alake, Bakari and Makeda — into a name for himself and the institution he founded: Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum. (Dabls is twice divorced, he said.)

Dabls’ abiding love is talking endlessly about the history of ancient Africa and the spiritual and cultural significance embedded in various materials, symbols, ornamentation and, of course, handcrafted beads. Beads, he explained, have a language and a purpose beyond aesthetic beauty. It’s a discovery he traces back to the mid-1980s, as a regular attendee of Detroit’s annual summertime African World Festival, then held on Hart Plaza on the city’s waterfront.

The festival’s international focus brings artifact vendors from across the African continent. Dabls was as drawn to their vibrant stories as he was to their sculptures, textiles and beads. “What I saw led me to doing my own research about their true meaning.” A mesmerized Dabls began buying, selling and immersing himself in the origin stories of the materials and imagining ways to incorporate his learnings into his art and everyday life in Detroit.

Paper cutout image of four figures on a blue park bench
Dabls works in a wide variety of media, including paper cutouts. Courtesy the artist

“I discovered that the beads were not just about adornment, and the beads led me to other connections through materials that are much richer than what we learn. Beads carry history about important traditions. People all over the planet, from all different cultures, come in here and they connect,” he said of his museum patrons today. “Sometimes they learn a little truth.”

In 2022, Dabls, with his love of visual storytelling through African symbols, continues to move forward. 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, this one at the intersection of Dexter Avenue and Davison, in Detroit’s Russell Woods neighborhood, a few miles north of the museum.

The mural, which he has yet to formally name (“I call it the Dexter Pop-Up Mural”), combines an intricate array of pointillist-type dots surrounding brightly colored African shapes and symbols, such as the Sankofa bird of Ghana, to highlight familial, generational and ancestral connections. The mythical Sankofa, which is always depicted with its feet planted forward, pays homage to Akan people’s belief that the knowledge of the past must never be forgotten. Among the Akan, to see a Sankofa is to always remember: “It is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

Like all his other creations, the mural, Dabls said, is art with a purpose. “It’s a way to get people to take interest in Dexter,” he said. Dabls said a group of community collaborators will help with the mural’s installation. “There’s energy in the community, and there’s rich history and value in people learning to see it and preserve it.”

Dabls was named the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist by a select group of artists and arts professionals:

Michael Hodges: Fine arts writer and author of Building the Modern World, Albert Kahn in Detroit
Debra White-Hunt:
Dancer and co-founder and artistic director of Detroit-Windsor Dance Academy and 2020 Kresge Artist Fellow
Keith Owens: Journalist, cultural critic and independent publisher
Satori Shakoor: Actress, founder of The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, host of Detroit Performs: Live from Marygrove and 2017 Kresge Artist Fellow
S. Kay Young: Artist, activist and photographer