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Highlighting Detroit’s Invisible Artists: Local Art Workers

Lorena Cruz Santiago, "​A Number in the System (video still)"​ (2016) — an installation and performance based art work which comments on immigration and systems of government in the United States. (All images courtesy of the artist and presented in ART​WORK​)

DETROIT — On the heels of their exodus from MOCAD, amid a collective calling to account of the hostile work environment fostered there under recently terminated Executive Director Elysia Borowy-Reeder, curators Tizziana Baldenebro and Jova Lynne have co-curated a new exhibition around a subject close to their hearts: the art of art workers.

José Arenivar-Gómez, "There There" (2019 | Arenivar-Gomez is a Mexican ceramics artist and educator, and many of his works employ animal forms and hybridized cultural references to his country of origin and adopted homeland.

The show, ARTWORK, is part of the broader Art Mile virtual festival, which runs from July 29 through August 5 and features programming, installations, online art sales, and participation from dozens of Detroit galleries, institutions, and individuals. Baldenbro and Lynne have chosen to highlight a cohort of works across multiple media by 17 artists, all of whom perform labor in the art world outside of their own personal practices.

"Art workers are at the heart of the creative world," reads the curatorial statement accompanying the virtual exhibition. This is of course true everywhere, but in Detroit — where uneven economic opportunities meet the "hustle hard" mentality that is both a matter of survival and identity — there are an abundance of artists who support their personal artwork with institutional art work.

Jetshri Bhadviya, "Manifestations of The Ipseity" (2015) | Bhadviya is a visiting professor at College for Creative Studies, and makes work that explores how bodies activate a space and how they are perceived in a social, political, and spiritual environment. The collective of ideologies through which these bodies are expressed is referred to by the artist as "the ipseity."

Megan Major, ​"Untitled" (2019), from the series, Waves- Erie | Major is a photographer who works primarily with the abstracted play of light in dark spaces. Her work is consciously minimal, and often captures ephemeral subjects, such as reflections and smoke.

"It's impossible to visit Detroit without understanding the labor history that exists there, the worker's history that exists there," Baldenebro explained, during the keynote opening on Zoom for the show, which included a Q&A discussion with two of the featured artists, Sabrina Nelson and Graem Whyte. "So really, when we were thinking about what it meant to do work and what it meant to do art, and how these things often become binary as opposed to sort of merged together — it really became this fruitful conversation between us and the artists in this exhibition," Baldenebro continued.

Lauren Kalman, ​"But if the Crime is Beautiful…​" (2014) | Kalman is a professor at Wayne State University and works across a variety of media. She creates images, artifacts, and documentation that capture the integration and discomfort of her body in their creation.

Darryl DeAngelo Terrell, ​"With Expensive Taste… That's It, Ain't Nothing Broke Over Here​" (2019) | Terrell is a writer, artist, curator, and DJ who exclusively photographs people of color. He is also a 2019 Kresge Art Fellow.

Wade Tullier, ​"Left Hand Shadow" (2020) | Tullier is a Detroit-based visual artist working primarily in ceramics, and the depictions in Tullier's ceramics are inspired by his unsettling experience as a forensic sculptor and researcher.

Though there are some thematic links, the exhibition's organizing principle leaves room for a diversity of interests, media, and expression. The more interesting takeaway is the framework itself, which seeks to center the artists who have, historically, played an invisible role in making the art world turn. As Baldenebro acknowledged during the keynote, this is a particularly rich vein for Detroit — as it has surely been in other places — and one that may see future iterations around the city, as creative institutions seek to reformat and rebuild following this break with business-as-usual.

Chelsea Flowers,​ "The Conversation (v​ideo still)" (2020) | Flowers's practice explores subversion in popular culture using the guiding concept "What Would Migos Do?"

Sabrina Nelson, "​The Fire Next Time & Seated James with Nappy Thoughts"​ (2020) | Nelson is a painter who studied at Detroit's College for Creative Studies and has worked as an artist and educator in the city for 30 years. Her work is influenced by Yoruba Religion as well as Eastern and African Philosophy.

ARTWORK continues as part of Art Mile through August 5. The exhibition was curated by Tizziana Baldenebro and Jova Lynne.

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