Art

Totemic Tributes to the Obscured History of a Detroit Neighborhood

One of Stephen G. Rhodes' found object sculptures, already being reclaimed by the elements.
One of Stephen G. Rhodes’s found object sculptures, already being reclaimed by the elements (all photos by the author unless otherwise noted)

DETROIT — The history of the former municipality of Fairview is written in its streets. Officially founded in 1903, the city sat between Detroit and Grosse Point Park, only to be officially annexed by Detroit in 1907. Today, Fairview is a quiet, residential neighborhood bordering waterfront parks. Lakewood-Riverfront East Park is one of these, poised at the intersection of the Detroit River channel and Lake St. Clair, and is the site of the inaugural T O T E M S Riverfront Art Festival, a five-week series of educational, performance, and installation-based happenings that delve into the mythic and factual associations of a place rich with centuries of Detroit history.

Local historian Nick Sinacori holds forth on historical fact and errata.
Local historian Nick Sinacori giving his presentation in early September

The particulars of this history were laid out by local historian Nick Sinacori in a presentation, “Lost History of the Village of Fairview,” which took place in early September. Sinacori regaled a small crowd of interested residents and history buffs with a call-and-response-like recitation of the origins of almost every street name in the eastside neighborhoods. The hour-long presentation included a nuanced walk through history, starting with the founding of Fort Pontchartrain du Détroit (or Fort Detroit) in 1701 by French officer and explorer Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who imposed himself upon a region in the midst of tribal conflict among Ottawa, Huron, and Miami tribes, eventually culminating in what is known as the Fox Indian Massacre.

Things came to head in 1712 under Cadillac’s successor, Jacques-Charles Renaud Dubuisson, who was at the helm during a siege of the fort by a force of 1,000 Fox, Sac, and Mascouten tribespeople. According to Sinacori, the Fox Indians were particularly disliked by all sides, and once they had been pushed back into the great marsh (or “Grand Marais”) and forced to surrender, they were summarily slaughtered by some combination of French soldiers and other tribespeople. The remains form some part of the fundament of the existing island-park, bordered by Fox Creek on one side and Connor Creek on the other, which form a canal system that makes it an offbeat destination for lovers of light watercraft.

Detail from one of Stephen G. Rhodes' sculptures.
Detail from one of Stephen G. Rhodes’s sculptures

This massacre is addressed by Berlin-based artist Stephen G. Rhodes, who installed four sculptural poles around the park that harken to the shamanistic association of totems — a form of tribal medicine practice by, for example, a Fox medicine man who is, according to Sinacori, buried in an unmarked grave on Peach Island, a small Canadian island visible from the park’s lookout on the river. At their bases, Rhodes’s poles are grounded by clusters of odd vinyl inflatables in the shape of sandaled feet, narrowing to spear-shafts adorned with broken doll heads, erected as proxies for the bodies buried on the site.

This was just the opening salvo of a history lesson that included high-stakes horse racing at the Hamtramck Race Track, which is currently the Indian Village historical neighborhood. According to Sinacori, during the track’s heyday from the 1830s until 1894, roughly 90% of the jockeys were African-American, including the little-known three-time Kentucky Derby winner (and one of the most-winning jockeys in history), Issac Burns Murphy. The area was also home to the Detroit Driving Club, a racetrack that alternated between horse races and early automotive contents, including the 1901 Winton-Ford race that earned Henry Ford $1,000 and his first mention in society. Perhaps Detroit- and New York-based artist Eleni Zaharopoulos is making cheeky allusion to these skill contests in her two-part activity, “New Ceremony for the Old Skin,” an “intention-setting ceremony and obstacle course” — where participants tackle a series of makeshift physical challenges, such as hopping pieces of salvaged cement curbs — the second iteration of which will take place on September 18, the day of the festival’s closing.

One in a series of patchwork tarp installations by Chad Wentzel, referencing paleo-futurism and 1980s outer space, as well as West African tradition and Art Deco/pseudo Native American style-biting.
One in a series of patchwork tarp installations by Chad Wentzel

“Horse-racing and saloons!” claimed Sinacori, skimming some highlights of the pre-Prohibition times at Billy Klenk’s Lighthouse Inn, and the access to liquor during the Prohibition era, facilitated by the neighborhood’s complex canal systems and proximity to Canada. As Sinacori tells it, patrons of the local Village Wine Shop can find bullets buried in the woodwork, courtesy of the Purple Gang — a gang of infamous bootleggers and hijackers mostly comprised of Jewish immigrants (Sinacori referred to them as “the Jewish Navy”) who controlled rum-running in the region all the way to Chicago. Some of these high times and obscured histories are commemorated in a series of hand-painted signs by Detroit artist Scott Hocking.

In an era of Google mapping, Hocking's signs are refreshingly analogue designators of place.
In an era of Google mapping, Scott Hocking’s signs are refreshingly analogue designators of place

“There used to be a trailer park on the river between what’s now called Mariner Park to the east, and Riverfront Lakewood East Park on the west,” said Hocking, via email.

The Trailer Park was demoed around 10 years ago, but I remember going when it was half-abandoned, but people still lived there. The site has been fenced off for some years now, with a daunting homeland security sign warning of trespassers and asking you to ‘help protect our borders.’ So, of course, I decided it would be a good idea to make a bunch of signs depicting the different things that used to sit on that now-vacant riverfront land throughout history, ferry them across the Fox Creek canal on a kayak, piece by piece, like a trespassing beaver, and install them along the canal so they’re visible from the edge of the park and to people paddling down the waterway.

As with much of Hocking’s work, which deals exhaustively in researched and reimagined history, the signs seem cut loose from time. They look so at home in their environment, it would be difficult for someone encountering them on their own to discern if they were true historical fixtures, or recent additions.

One of the signs, only visible from the water. Photo courtesy of Scott Hocking.
One of the signs, only visible from the water (photo courtesy Scott Hocking)

Thank goodness for “Mindful Pathways,” an ongoing series of guided walks by performance artist Bridget Michael that leads participants in a walking meditation around the park. Michael’s exhortations to connect body and spirit facilitate an awareness of the park’s surroundings — the rising and falling of cicada song, the towering trees that must have borne witness to a great deal of the history that Sinacori laid out so colorfully. In fact, the trees will have an opportunity to add their reminiscences to the mix, in a closing-day interactive installation, “Tree Frequency” by artist Kathy Leisen. Visitors should be able to walk around the park and hear the trees “talk” via handheld radio devices tuned into the “tree frequency,” aka 88.1FM. “It remains unclear what, exactly, they are saying,” says Leisen, in the activity’s description. But, like most history, that shouldn’t stop anyone from attempting to gain a better understanding.

Bridget Michael, leading "Mindful Pathways."
Bridget Michael, leading “Mindful Pathways”
You can chart this tree's history by its rings, but only Kathy Leisen can tune you into what it has to say.
You can chart this tree’s history by its rings, but only Kathy Leisen can tune you into what it has to say.

T O T E M S Riverfront Art Festival is ambitious in scope, especially for its first year, and organizer, artist, and neighborhood resident Jaime Lutzo describes it as a learning experience. The events have been mostly small-scale in attendance, with the largest draw coming for the astonishing performance on the festival’s opening weekend, “Charting Islands of the Hollow Earth,” by art collective Seafoam Palace, dealing conceptually with a British bomber plane crash near Harbor Island in 1958.

islands-hollow-earth-totems-banner
From “Charting Islands of the Hollow Earth” (photo by Tod Seelie, courtesy Seafoam Palace)

“Only parts of the wreckage were ever found, and we discovered why,” says Seafoam Palace, in an artist statement on their website. “According to our exclusive research, the plane punctured a hole in the crust of the hollow earth, allowing a phantom island to pop out from the earth’s core now and then on a canal. This made us very curious. Would we ever be able to see this apparition?” The subsequent staging of the phantom island sighting was terrifically otherworldly, and reminds us that there is spectacle and wonder to be had just about anywhere we care to invest in it.

One hopes T O T E M S is just at the beginning of an ongoing conversation that brings focus to a now-quiet little pocket of Detroit that is teeming with energy, legacy, and space to reflect on itself and its place in history.

T O T E M S Riverfront Art Festival continues at Lakewood-Riverfront East Park in Detroit through September 18.

comments (0)