Visiting Dabls’ African Bead Gallery and MBAD Museum when the windows shed light on the walls gives one the sense of standing inside a kaleidoscope.
Amber beads seem to glow from within. Strands of polished stones show their grain. And glass beads refract rays into soft rainbows.
The walls of Olayami Dabls’ gallery and museum, inside a century-old row house on Grand River at West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, are draped with thousands of strands of African beads displayed in loops or in jars on shelves. All are authentic, many are centuries old, and each is for sale, some for as much as hundreds of dollars apiece.
Dabls, a local artist and the gallery’s owner, first became drawn to ancient beads in the early 1980s, when he asked an African art dealer visiting Detroit if he could buy the necklace he was wearing.
The dealer took offense, explaining that the beads had personal, cultural, and religious significance, and weren’t simply accessories.
“We see it as adornment but, to them, they’re communicating information,” says Dabls, a 2011 Kresge Artist Fellow.
The beads he sells, which are typically made of stone, bone, wood, and glass, can signify a range of meanings — from magical powers to heritage and history — depending on bead size, color, and arrangement.
“There are still people in Africa today who can take a strand of beads and it can act as a trigger, and they talk about stuff as it relates to those beads,” he says. “So these are really like textbooks to us.”
The gallery, founded in 1985, had several city locations — including spaces in the Book Tower and the David Whitney Building — before settling on the corner of this deserted block 14 years ago. From the start, Dabls’ hope was to create a center of African history and culture.
Although the gallery is open to the public, the bead museum is not. He dreams of opening it, but with little funding so far, the collection is concealed behind a locked door, with such gems as masks from the Congo, a shield from Ethiopia, textiles from Zaire, and even rarer beads going unseen.
For now, without the money necessary to launch his dream, Dabls and a few friends are working to beautify the block. That effort includes colorful splashes of paint on his building’s plain wood exterior, which also is studded with thousands of mirror shards that sparkle when the sunlight strikes the wall. They planted a vegetable garden in the shop’s backyard, turned an abandoned warehouse nearby into a two-story art display, and covered a dull concrete wall at the edge of the property with painted phrases from African languages.
An art installation fills the empty rear lot, where Dabls has created four exhibits — a sprawling display reminiscent of the Heidelberg Project across town. The centerpiece, titled Iron Teaching Rocks to Rust, features an “audience” of jagged stones seated before a massive figure of iron and wood. It’s a metaphor, they say, for one culture imposing itself on another.
“It’s the Europeans being insistent on teaching Africans born in America how to act European,” says Efe Bes, a board member at the museum and resident artist. A longtime musician, he sometimes plays African drums on the corner to draw passersby to the gallery.
In his vision, the gallery, the future museum, and the art are meant to provide a center of African culture in the city, which has few such offerings beyond the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
“That museum is focused on what we’ve done since we’ve been in America, but not what was prior to that, which is the core of us,” Bes says. “The city is primarily of African descent, but there’s nothing in the city that’s actually relating to African people. And that’s what this museum is attempting to do: Present Africa in a more positive light and a more accurate light.”
In addition, Dabls says, it sets an example of how a fallen area can become vibrant again, bringing renewal to a place long left for dead. The gallery draws visitors from the city, the suburbs, and other countries who come to see the bead collection, take the crafts classes, listen to reggae concerts on the wood stage, or just wander through a blossoming art project in the field outside.
“The people have to step up to the plate,” Dabls says. “The city cannot just do it all. We just claimed the whole block, and hoped in turn that other people will say, ‘Wait a minute, they’re doing this and there’s no grants, it’s low-budget; we can do this ourselves.’”
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