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Leni Sinclair – photographer of counterculture, rock, jazz icons – named 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist


Sinclair is the eighth artist to receive the Kresge honor and $50,000 award for her contributions to art form, cultural community, residents of city

Detroit photographer and cultural activist Leni Sinclair has been named the 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist.

Sinclair is a recognized leader of the 1960s-70s countercultural movement in Detroit, which she amply documented through vivid and dramatic photography. But she may be best known for capturing the raucous rock n’ roll scene of that era, including photographs of such rock legends as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, and jazz icons such as Miles Davis and Sun Ra. Focusing her lens on musicians and fellow activists from nightclubs to festivals to street demonstrations, Sinclair captured a pivotal era in American history when art and politics intertwined. Some of her photos – including shots of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and of Nigeria’s rebel music star Fela Kuti – are among the most widely known of their subjects.

Sinclair, 75, joins seven other metro Detroit artists who have received the Kresge Eminent Artist award since 2008 in recognition of professional achievements in their art forms, contributions to the cultural community and dedication to Detroit and its residents. The honor also includes a $50,000 prize and creation of an artist monograph which will chronicle Sinclair’s life and portfolio. (Download the monograph here)

“This is a game-changer for me. I have so much left to do,” says Sinclair of the 2016 Eminent Artist designation. Her current projects include creating an archive and database of her decades of photographs. “When I complete my database of musicians just from Detroit alone, it will be a mind-blower. Then you will know Detroit is the epicenter of music.”

Leni Sinclair, 2016 Kresge Eminent Artist from Kresge Arts in Detroit on Vimeo.

The Kresge Eminent Artist Award is funded by The Kresge Foundation, a national private foundation based in metro Detroit, as part of its Detroit Program. The Eminent Artist Award and Kresge Artist Fellowships are administered by the Kresge Arts in Detroit office at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit.

“Leni Sinclair both contributed to the social changes of the 1960s and ’70s and documented the movement’s fleeting moments for posterity,” says Kresge Foundation President and CEO Rip Rapson. “Her photos capture the enormously deep and often raw emotional energies of the time – from love-ins to festivals, from intimate performances to protests. She had the uncanny combination of instincts, empathy, and skills required to capture the artistic essence radiated by performers from hundreds of stages and activists in hundreds of settings. And she showed us who those performers are when they’re away from the stage. Through her ceaselessly curious and probing lens, Leni Sinclair has built a riveting and expansive body of work that enables us to understand those times – particularly from a Detroit perspective – at a more profound and multifaceted level.”

“At Kresge, we believe that a thriving arts and culture community enriches the quality of life for residents in innumerable ways,” adds Rapson. “The Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council – which chooses the Eminent Artist each year – has given us the opportunity to again recognize, support and promote an artist whose talent and of conviction have uniquely contributed to the cultural life of our community.”

College for Creative Studies President Richard L. Rogers says, “CCS is proud to administer the Kresge Arts in Detroit program and to participate in honoring Leni Sinclair, an artist whose work is essential to Detroit’s narrative as one of the country’s most creative and culturally influential cities.”

Sinclair’s work continues to make a mark in the art world and in the mass market. Her photograph of Fela Kuti was the central image in the promotion of the 2010 Tony-winning Broadway musical “FELA!” The New Yorker recently republished her iconic Coltrane picture alongside a review of a new box-set of his classic album “A Love Supreme.”

Recent exhibitions at the Kalakuta Museum in Lagos, Nigeria; Galerie Christoph Duerr in Munich, Germany; and Susanne HiIberry Gallery in Ferndale, Mich., are testament to the reach of her work. In 2009, Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History presented “Legends of Music: Photographs by Leni Sinclair,” with roughly 40 photographs, including many of her classics.

Sinclair’s images have also been published in numerous books, including more than 20 publications by the Detroit Artists Workshop Press. Among those are the 1984 publication “Detroit Jazz Who’s Who” (co-authored with Herb Boyd and including hundreds of Sinclair’s portraits) and the 2013 book “Detroit Rocks! A Pictorial History of Motor City Rock and Roll 1965 to 1975,” which includes Sinclair’s photographs along with concert posters and other art by co-author Gary Grimshaw. (Most of Sinclair’s photographs have been donated to the University of Michigan’s Bentley Historical Library as part of the “John and Leni Sinclair papers, 1957-2003.”)

Leni Sinclair was born Magdalene Arndt in what is now Kaliningrad, Russia, and was raised on a farm in the former East Germany. In 1959, at age 18, she immigrated to Detroit after having escaped from East Germany, joining an aunt and several cousins who already lived in the area. While studying geography at Wayne State University in Detroit, Sinclair helped found the Red Door Gallery, a combination rehearsal, studio and exhibition space devoted to avant-garde arts. In 1964, she was a pioneering member of the Detroit Artists Workshop, a collective of writers, musicians and artists who continued the Red Door’s advocacy for countercultural and avant-garde arts in Detroit.

In 1968, Leni Sinclair, along with then-husband John Sinclair, were among the founders of the White Panther Party, which later became the Rainbow People’s Party; party priorities included opposition to racism and the Vietnam War, and support for prison reform, marijuana legalization and community welfare projects. The group prominently included members of the MC5 band, now considered forerunners of punk rock, and Sinclair photographed them extensively. “I was the house photographer for the MC5, literally. We lived in the same house,” she says.

After John Sinclair was sentenced to prison for possession of two marijuana cigarettes, Leni helped organize a benefit that drew 15,000 to Ann Arbor’s Crisler Arena to hear headliners including Stevie Wonder, Bob Seger, John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Not surprisingly, Leni Sinclair captured some of the enduring photographs of the gathering.

“I was always working for some movement or for some underground newspaper, that’s how I got access to a lot of musicians,” says Sinclair, whose work appeared in such outlets as the Detroit-based Fifth Estate and The Ann Arbor Sun. Once she got close to her subjects, Sinclair clicked her shutter persistently to get what she calls her “lucky” shots of Coltrane or Jimi Hendrix or Janis Joplin.

Luck and modesty aside, her immense volume of moving photographs attests to something more.

“Leni Sinclair is always looking to present the soul of the artist,” says Juanita Moore, president of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History and a member of the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council, which selects the Kresge Eminent Artist. “She wants you to feel what people at the concert feel. Her photographs show that you missed a moment, and you know it.”

Besides musicians, Sinclair shot innumerable other counterculture and activist figures, including poet Diane di Prima, civil rights leader Rosa Parks, activist-politician Tom Hayden and Black Panthers co-founder Huey P. Newton. “To me, just about everybody I ever took a picture of is exceptional,” she says.

One of Sinclair’s personal favorites is a photo that has not been widely circulated. Shot in New Orleans, it features a dancer in blues musician Bobby Rush’s band. “When I made a print, I thought to myself ‘that is one of the most beautiful photos I ever took.’ And then I promptly lost the negative. Bobby Rush had two beautiful dancers and one of them was killed in an accident. I still don’t know if it was this dancer.”

In 2016, Sinclair’s career continues surging onward. She has received invitations to participate in a book about the late jazz visionary Sun Ra as well as a project on Fela Kuti, whose grandchild she met on a recent trip overseas.

Devon Akmon, director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Mich., is also a member of the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council.

“Detroit hasn’t always done the best job documenting its cultural output. By ensuring documentation, we ensure that legacy goes on,” says Akmon of Leni Sinclair’s contribution to the region.

About the award

The Kresge Eminent Artist award is given annually to an artist who has lived and worked in Wayne, Oakland or Macomb counties for a significant number of years. In addition to the unrestricted $50,000 cash prize, the award includes the creation of a monograph commemorating the artist’s life and work, which is distributed to the public for free.

Past winners are visual artist Charles McGee, jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, poet and playwright Bill Harris, poet and publisher Naomi Long Madgett, composer and Michigan Opera Theatre Artistic Director David DiChiera, photographer Bill Rauhauser and textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee.

The 2016 recipient was selected by the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council, a volunteer group of leaders in the metropolitan Detroit cultural community. Its members are:

  • Devon Akmon, director, Arab American National Museum
  • Gary Anderson, artist director and co-founder, Plowshares Theatre Company
  • Jane Hoehner, director, Wayne State University Press
  • Cary Loren, co-owner, The Book Beat, 2013 Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts
  • Judith Molina, director, Institute of Music & Dance at Marygrove College
  • Juanita Moore, president and CEO, Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
  • Marsha Philpot (aka Marsha Music),writer, 2012 Kresge Artist Fellow in the Literary Arts
  • Gregory Wittkopp, director, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research