Art

An Artist Takes Issue with a Brand’s Appropriation of Black Detroit

With “Rethink Shinola,” scholar and artist Rebekah Modrak has created a biting, minutely researched critique of an appropriative re-branding of Detroit.

“Rethink Shinola” lays out the brand’s racist history, and the ways in which that legacy is being perpetuated under the guise of renewed American manufacturing (images still-captured by the author from “Rethink Shinola”).

DETROIT — For the entrepreneurial set, one of the standout success stories of “new” Detroit is the resuscitation of the Shinola brand, transforming a long-obsolete (and, as we’ll see, highly problematic) legacy as a shoe-polish company into the Great White Hope for a new American manufacturing model. Emphasis very much on “white.”

From the inception of this reboot, spearheaded by Bedrock development corporation and its Texas-born-and-bred President, Jacques Panis, there has been copious evidence that the values championed by Shinola in no way represent a vanguard, but in fact reinforce a system as old as colonialism itself. This reality is laid out in excruciating, exceptionally thoroughly researched detail by writer, artist, and University of Michigan Associate Professor Rebekah Modrak, who creates critical interventions into capitalism to critique consumer culture and brand messaging. Modrak’s past works include the bitingly on-point Re Made Company. Her newest project is “Rethink Shinola,” a timed animation designed to be viewed on laptop or desktop (rather than mobile device) that lays out the contradictions and racist underpinnings of Shinola’s branding, past and present, and the obliviousness with which the company parlays these damaging practices into present-day Detroit.

A series of storyboards, reverse-engineered by Modrak to include critical analysis and visual interventions underscoring the colonial practices being showcased in the promotional film made by GM, starring Shinola President Jacques Panis.

“I had a few a-ha moments with Shinola,” said Modrak, in an email interview. “One of the first happened in 2014, when I was visiting an independent bookstore in New York City and saw a stack of notebooks with “Detroit” embossed on them. I wasn’t expecting to see the city’s name and, in that moment, felt this great happiness at seeing the city acknowledged out in the world. It was the first time I’d seen mention of Detroit while traveling. Then I looked closer and saw that the notebooks read “Detroit, Shinola.” And I felt a sinking feeling realizing that Detroit was in shackles, and just being exhibited by this Texas-based colonizing venture capital firm for their own profit.”

The evidence that Modrak has compiled is damning, presenting examples of overtly racist Shinola advertisements from the 1930s, all the way through a shockingly tone-deaf campaign shot by photographer Bruce Weber. Shinola commissioned Weber to photograph supermodel Carolyn Murphy (in her first visit to Detroit) hugging and bicycling with black Detroiters.

Images from Bruce Weber’s commissioned campaign for Shinola
“Rethink Shinola” juxtaposes this imagery with historical iterations of the same theme.

“Photographed in black and white, dressed in clothing that could easily be mistaken for Jim Crow period fashions, the images elicit an imperialist nostalgia for a “glorious” past of White patronage and the benevolent White mistress,” writes Modrak, in “Rethink Shinola.” But the real impetus for “Rethink Shinola” came when Modrak decided to attend a lecture delivered by Panis at the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan in March of 2015.

The stage for Panis’s lecture, reconstructed by Modrak for a complete restaging of the lecture, with Panis performed by actor Rob Najarian.

“The lecture was for a large class of students — over a hundred students interested in entrepreneurism,” said Modrak. “I got there early and sat for fifteen minutes with the image of this young African American girl looking out at me from the screen — with Shinola branded across her chest. It was one of Bruce Weber’s images. All the faculty associated with the class seemed to be white men, the director of the course and program was a white man, and then Jacques Panis comes out, with no sense of what it meant to exhibit this image of a person of color and the sense of ownership over that image. No historical sense of our country’s history of enslaving and exploiting African Americans for profit and for control, a system that’s still perpetuated today, if not in the owning of humans then in their imprisonment, in economic disinvestment, and controlling their images. For most of its history, and you could argue even now, that when it comes to capital, it’s a medium largely controlled by white men.”

Another of Shinola’s racist shoe polish ads from the 1930s

Panis’s lecture went on to include some shockingly outré concepts, including characterizing the idea to reboot Shinola as a vision that “did not take two guys sitting on the opposite sides of a boardroom table. It took one wild drunk Indian to do this.”

“Who refers to Native Americans as wild and inebriated?! And who says that in an educational context to students at the University of Michigan?” says Modrak. “Well, the colonizer says it. And it became clear in Panis’s talk that this is how he and Shinola understand Detroit.”

For reasons that seem obvious, the Center for Entrepreneurship didn’t put Panis’s talk online with all the others, but Modrak took advantage of the opportunity to watch the recording in their offices, visiting several times over the course of the next few months, each time with different artist and activist friends from Detroit and Ann Arbor to have conversations about Panis’s lecture and Shinola’s images. “Rethink Shinola” came out of these conversations. In addition to a well-researched timeline and resource library of subjects related to Shinola, Detroit, colonialism, and social inequity, “Rethink Shinola” includes a “re-directed” cut of a publicity video starring Panis, onto which Modrak has animated colonial headgear including pith helmet, seersucker hat, and Napoleon bicorne. It also presents a full restaging of Panis’s lecture, in the original location and with the original slide deck, using actor Rob Najarian as a stand-in for Panis.

More captures from Modrak’s re-direct of the Shinola promotional film

“Rethink Shinola” characterizes itself not as “a critique of the Shinola employee who works for an income to make a living, but a critique of the company and the system that expropriates “community,” colonizes a city and employees as their brand narrative, and devours the resources of that community for private gain, while trying to market themselves as a ‘philanthropist.’” Certainly, this bears criticism and should be studied and considered as Shinola’s appropriation of Detroit and blackness negatively impact the economic well-being of Detroiters.

“Since opening Shinola, Bedrock Manufacturing Co. has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, including over $125 million from “friends and family,” made up of investments from Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC and the Kresge Foundation,” writes Modrak. “This is during a time when, according to the most recent census data, 40.3% of Detroit residents live below the federal poverty line – $24,008 for a family of four. African Americans make up 83% of Detroit’s population, yet only 15% of private company revenues. Why? Black businesses were unable to be a major part of the “downtown development” due largely to the destruction of Paradise Valley and the lack of compensation to Black-owned businesses when they lost their businesses through eminent domain for the building of the I-75 & I-375 highway. Now, the private, for profit Shinola company absorbs and exploits resources from institutions like the Kresge Foundation, whose mission is to “deploy an array of grant-making and investing tools to expand opportunities for low-income people,” i.e., economic resources that should go to local Detroiters.”

Modrak is unflinching in her appraisal of Panis’s tactics and Shinola’s negative impact on the core residents of Detroit, especially the ideas espoused in the UM lecture, ostensibly designed to inspired budding entrepreneurs.

“He presented Detroit as a “crazy” environment, “where you used to go to get your drugs” and Shinola, the white knight, aggressively pursuing white designers and convincing them to get on board this “crazy” scheme. He encouraged the UM students to see themselves that way and to understand Detroit natives as tools to their own success. He said, “as you start your ventures” … “think about … how do you get those people to be your ambassadors.” So this is no “crazy” scheme; it’s as old as Christopher Columbus.”

The development community may align in shining praise of this enterprise, but be aware there is a powerful watchdog on the scene, and she certainly knows shit from Shinola.

Rethink Shinola” is viewable online, and designed for laptop or desktop viewing. Rethink Shinola was funded by the University of Michigan and Modrak remains in contact with the first amendment attorney in the University of Michigan’s Office of General Counsel.

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