Pearl Museum Founder Olayami Dabls Named 2022 Kresge Distinguished Artist

Olayami Dabls, a Detroit artist and muralist who has transformed two city blocks with his vibrant pearl museum that attracts visitors from around the world, has been named the 2022 Kresge Distinguished Artist, the foundation announced Thursday morning.

Dabls, 73, will receive $50,000 to use as he sees fit. He is the 14th Distinguished Artist for the Kresge Foundation, an award that annually honors an artist from the Detroit metro area for lifetime achievement in the arts.

“Each of our prominent Kresge artists has made powerful contributions to our artistic and cultural landscape, but Olayami Dabls is one whose work has also altered our physical landscape,” Kresge Chairman Rip Rapson said in a statement. communicated. “The mirror-like, multicolored Dabls MBAD Bead Museum and its adjoining sculpture garden scream to all passers-by that the human spirit is alive and vibrant near the intersection of Grand River and Grand Boulevard in Detroit’s Westside.”

Dabls couldn’t believe at first that he had won.

“It was something that I never had any idea of ​​being the recipient for,” he said.

Dabls established his MBAD African Bead Museum in 1998. Showcasing a range of beads, African symbols, artwork and jagged mirrors that cover the entire exterior – he said he uses mirrors because they give people a chance to look at themselves in a way they never have – the museum has attracted thousands of visitors from all over the world. The centerpiece of the museum campus is a sculpture garden with 18 installations, all designed and installed by Dabls.

“We are literally known the world over without modern buildings or major marketing techniques because we have something that appeals to the palate of almost every culture on this planet,” Dabls said.

Dabls’ career spans 45 years and includes more than 15,000 original works of art – paintings, murals, installations, jewelry and sculptures. African art, traditions and tales occupy a prominent place in his work. He is the first prominent Kresge artist to also win a Kresge Artist Fellowship, a $25,000 prize in 2011.

“His art is so powerful because it is the community,” said writer and cultural critic Keith Owens, one of five panelists who spent months deciding on this year’s winner before choosing Dabls. Former Detroit News fine arts writer Michael Hodges was another panelist.

Beads, African symbols, artwork and jagged mirrors cover the entire exterior of N'kisi House, a building next to the MBAD African Bead Museum.

“He presented something that is really deeply spiritual and captures the spirit of the city,” Owens said.

Dabls was born in Canton, Mississippi and moved to Detroit as a teenager in the 1960s. After graduating from Detroit Public Schools in 1973, he earned an associate’s degree in drafting technology at Highland Park Community College, now defunct.

He worked briefly in the automotive industry, but it was a nearly 15-year career at the International African American Museum, the precursor to the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, that really shaped his artistic trajectory and inspired him. open his own museum. As artist-in-residence and curator at the museum, he developed curatorial skills “and a passion for contextualizing history through visual storytelling,” according to Kresge.

An installation by Detroit artist Olayami Dabls, the 2022 Kresge Prominent Artist, stands in Detroit's Harmony Park.

Dabls was born James Lewis, later changed his name to Olayami Dabls, combining parts of his former surname, Lewis, with the first names of his four children – Davida, Alake, Bakari and Makeda. He also used the letters to create the Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum.

Dabls began collecting beads in the 1980s after regularly attending the African World Festival in Detroit. Drawn to the festival’s textiles, beads, sculptures and stories behind it, they inspired him to do his own research. His collection now includes beads, belts, masks and tombstones from countries like Nigeria and Cameroon.

Dabls said he hopes his work inspires others to learn about their own culture.

“Everything I do ties into the African news reporting system to change the mental outlook of our people seeing things that relate directly to them through their culture,” Dabls told the Detroit News in 2013.

“Beads carry the history of important traditions,” said Dabls, who is currently working on converting a building near her pearl museum into an Airbnb showcasing her art. “People from all over the world, from all different cultures, come here and they connect.”

Kresge’s previous prominent artists include the late painter and sculptor Charles McGee; the late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave; poet and playwright Bill Harris; textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee; photographer and activist Leni Sinclair; and painter, art educator and historian Shirley Woodson.

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