Check Out Black Art in Detroit this Black History Month

Celebrate Black History Month — and the city’s legacy of producing outstanding creatives of color — with this Black art on display.
Illustration by Holly Wales

In the last half-decade or so, there’s been a marked shift in Detroit’s art scene. After years of grumbling from some artists about having to leave home to find work (or, in some cases, share this town with artists who left their home in search of cheaper digs in the Motor City), that sentiment seems to have cooled as some local entities begin to coalesce around supporting area creatives.

More investments from local foundations have kept some artists from fleeing to Europe, while Detroit’s city government has established a dedicated arts and culture office. And a new generation of born-and-raised Detroit makers, fully cognizant of what may happen if too many outsiders come to dominate the art scene, is doing their part and taking up space.

Fold this in with the long-established institutions, such as the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and you’ve got artists both young and veteran thriving in a way the region hasn’t seen since the years before the city’s bankruptcy. Black art is especially prominent; it’s been said for years that middle-class African American households in Detroit are the biggest supporters — and collectors — of Black art anywhere in the country.

This February is an opportune time to experience some of the priceless contributions artists have made to the city across all forms, from murals and paintings to music, woodworks, sculpture, and other mediums.

Norwest Gallery of Art

Metro Detroit has a long, storied history of Black women artists and gallerists — Dell Pryor, Shirley Woodson, and Carole Morisseau immediately come to mind. Gallerist Asia Hamilton adds to that tradition with her space in Rosedale Park, long a haven for chic Black Detroiters, which opened in 2018. Come to see up-and-coming photographers and other mixed-media artists and meet them on the ground floor; stay for the gallery’s live events, which bring out the younger crowd with DJs or vital conversation. 19556 Grand River Ave., Detroit;

Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum

Of course, you can’t mention Black art in Detroit without acknowledging Olayami Dabls, who draws from African art and tradition to tell the history of Black people in America while looking toward the future. (And yes, that would be Afrofuturism.) That mirrored building on Grand River and Grand Boulevard — that sometimes blinds you if the sun hits it right — is Dabls Mbad African Bead Museum, where its namesake uses natural materials and the mirrors themselves to construct elaborate installations. Inside the two-block building is the bead store, a place fashionistas have frequented for years to score rare baubles but that also welcomes the amateur jewelry hobbyist. 6559 Grand River Ave., Detroit;

Eastern Market Murals

While you’re out strolling for produce during the Saturday market and taking in the sounds from Bert’s Warehouse along the way, try venturing outside the sheds to gaze at the uber-Instagrammable murals spread throughout the entire market district, many of which were painted by homegrown Black artists. (And please don’t call it “street art.”) Of particular note are Ashley McFadden’s mural for Brother Nature Produce, Sheefy McFly’s for Rufino Vargas, and Phil Simpson’s for Lush Yummies Pie Co., to name just a few.

Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

It goes without saying that the Wright Museum is the pinnacle of Black art in the city. And February will remain the museum’s biggest month, with a stellar slate of events including current exhibitions Detroit Jazz: The Legacy Continues and Jazz Greats: Classic Photographs from the Bank of America Collection. The museum will also host its usual Black history talks, dance classes, and other celebrations of Black history. But both exhibits close by the end of the month. 315 E. Warren Ave., Detroit;

N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

We’ll always be quick to credit N’Namdi Center founder George N’Namdi with coining the term “psychological gentrification” as it relates to Detroit development. In short, it’s a theory that Black Detroiters live and work in the city but their contributions are overlooked in favor of newer ones — which results in longtime residents feeling left out of the city’s progress. It’s gathering places like the N’Namdi Center, which regularly exhibits local artists as well as hosting other cultural events, that remind us that creativity from native talent is just as crucial to a city’s future as new boutiques and restaurants. 52 E. Forest Ave., Detroit;

The Carr Center

For more than three decades, The Carr Center has been devoted to amplifying the films, dance, music, and other cultural endeavors of Black Detroiters while also standing true to its core mission of providing a friendly neighborhood space for said artists to thrive. Pay close attention to the center’s “The Carr Center Presents” series, which draws in national artists from across the diaspora to present their work. Or, if you’ve got a little one with an artistic streak, check out its art classes for your budding Charles McGee. 15 E. Kirby St., Detroit;

Livernois Avenue of Fashion

Folks who have not traveled south of Eight Mile near Ferndale and Royal Oak may be missing out on one of the more dramatic streetscape revivals in Detroit in years. Gone is the boulevard that divided Livernois Avenue in two; back is a walkable thoroughfare — now with bike lanes! — redesigned to recapture the Avenue of Fashion’s heyday. But longtime Detroiters know stalwart Black businesses, such as Jo’s Gallery, Sherwood Forest Art Gallery, and The Fel’le Gallery, have never left. (Farther down Livernois, south of the University of Detroit Mercy, is a can’t-miss: Eric’s I’ve Been Framed, which sells original prints and art along-side its framing services.) Several new murals have moved in recently, including an homage to Issa Rae, the creator of HBO’s Insecure, kitty-corner to the new Motor City Brewing Works taproom.

Shrine of the Black Madonna

Contrary to popular belief, the Shrine — as locals call it — is still here. Though the bookstore has had to weather some hard economic times, as well as the rise of online bookselling, it is still one of the few places in the city proper, and perhaps the entire region, where you can purchase rare, handcrafted artifacts straight from the motherland. Gaze at intricate woodwork, tall statues, masks, and gold and copper wares — and bring your pocketbook. 7625 Linwood St., Detroit.

Scarab Club

Quiet as it’s kept, you never know who you might run into at the Scarab Club, so you’d better look nice when you drop by. Always a low-key place to run into the city’s who’s who, it’s not a traditional Black space per se, but it has helped launch the careers of several Black artists by showcasing their work early in their careers. Founded in 1907 as part social club, part gallery, the institution has been instrumental in the growth of Detroit’s cultural scene at large over the last 100-plus years and continues to march forward into the next century as the area flourishes. 217 Farnsworth St., Detroit;

Motown Museum

OK, don’t blush or be embarrassed. It’s time we acknowledge the long-running joke that born-and-raised Detroiters (and metro Detroiters) never go to the Motown Museum. (No, really — ask someone!) Unless they went there on a field trip, perhaps Detroit adults do take its presence for granted; it’ll always be there, right? But now nearing the end of a capital campaign to expand the museum beyond the two multifamily houses Berry Gordy converted into offices, it takes little effort to tour the former studios where so much of Black music — and for that matter, American music — took shape. 2648 Berry Gordy Jr. Blvd., Detroit;

This story is from the February 2023 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition