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Life and work of photographer-activist Leni Sinclair on exhibit and in new Kresge-published book

General Foundation News

“Detroit is a survivor, Detroit doesn’t give up, Detroit never stops,” Kresge’s 2016 Eminent Artist Leni Sinclair told a crowd of well-wishers Tuesday night at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as she was presented with a Kresge-produced monograph detailing her life and career.

What was implied in her words, and made explicit in the monograph, is that the same description applies to the photographer and activist who adopted Detroit as her home after her escape from East Germany in 1958.

Sinclair went on to become a recognized leader of the 1960s-70s countercultural movement in Detroit; she is particularly 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. To her politics and the artistic expressions are inseparable.

She was named the foundation’s 2016 Eminent Artist earlier this year, joining seven other metro Detroit artists who have received the 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 the artist monograph which was released Tuesday in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition of Sinclair’s photography at the museum.

The Music and The Times: Photographs by Leni Sinclair” will remain open through December. The exhibit combines photographs from Sinclair’s 2009 Wright Museum exhibition of music photographs with a career overview video created by the College for Creative Studies’ Kresge Arts in Detroit office. That office administers the Eminent Artist program and the related Kresge Artist Fellows initiatives for the Kresge Foundation.

“The real gift we celebrate tonight is the gift of Leni Sinclair herself – the gift of intertwined art and activism and love of community,” said Kresge President Rip Rapson in presenting the monograph to Sinclair in a brief ceremony.

Sinclair recounted to the audience the travails of her childhood as a refugee on the Eastern Front of World War II and the life she fled in East Germany. “It’s a miracle I’m standing here in more ways than one,” she said.

She talked about her efforts to publish a book on the history of the Detroit rock scene that would include her story of the White Panther Party ­– she was minister of education – and the party’s involvement in a pivotal civil liberties case that ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court. That case, widely referred to as the “Keith Case,” forced the disclosure of warrantless government wiretaps in prosecutions.

With her book “Detroit Rocks” now out of print, Sinclair said the monograph has done the job for her of making the story better known.

The monograph includes more than 100 photographs, including iconic shots of Detroit-based musicians the MC5, Iggy Pop, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Bob Seger, and national and world music figures John Coltrane, James Brown, Bob Marley, Fela Kuti, the Rolling Stones, Dr. John and Prince.

“She was there with her camera during the civil rights movement, the 1963 March on Washington; she was there for the founding of the Detroit Artist Workshop and there for the 1967 Detroit rebellion, the antiwar and anti-establishment protests, the Black Panthers, the White Panthers, the Rainbow People’s Party, the hippies and the Yippies,” said Rapson.

Rapson hailed Sinclair as someone who “embodies artistic excellence, who holds close the values of community, who links between generations.”

College for Creative Studies President Rick Rogers, also speaking at the presentation ceremony, called attention to the Eminent Artist monographs as a group. Previous monographs have celebrated a range of performing artists (the late trumpeter Marcus Belgrave and opera impresario David DiChiera), visual artists (sculptor and painter Charles McGee, photographer Bill Rauhauser and textile artist Ruth Adler Schnee) and literary artists (poet-publisher Naomi Long Madgett and playwright Bill Harris).

Said Rogers: “These publications together form a remarkable record of artistic achievement by eight extraordinary individuals.  But these Eminent Artists are also representative of the larger Detroit cultural milieu, and the monographs offer a narrative of the cultural scene here going back more than 50 years.  They remind us just how vibrant that scene has always been and still is today.  Detroit artists – whether visual, performing or literary – are a probing, provocative, resilient and endlessly innovative tribe.  They draw energy from Detroit, and they give energy back to it.  They are essential to Detroit’s identity.”

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History is located at 315 East Warren Avenue,  Detroit.

To reserve a complimentary copy of the monograph visit our Kresge Eminent Artist page. The monograph is also available for download

You may also find out more about, download or order (while supplies last) monographs on the seven previous eminent artists.