DETROIT — Intermedia artist, musician, and radical jeweler Tiff Massey has never been one to shy away from offering her opinion, especially when it comes to the politics of Detroit — who it belongs to, and who belongs to it. So it’s no surprise that that her solo exhibition at Library Street Collective is titled Say It Loud; anyone who knows Massey, knows that she isn’t the type to tackle race or her pride in her identity quietly. But Massey’s hyper-territorialism regarding who can claim Detroit as their home comes into philosophical conflict with some of the culture blending she utilizes in a new body of fiber-based work involving both gingham and kente cloth.
“Yesterday, it was brought to my attention that Detroit galleries are claiming artists to be from Detroit that are clearly not,” said Massey in a November 14 Facebook post that drew both agreement and dissent from her bevy of followers. She continued:
I mean if you are a Cranbrook student or AIR, you are not a Detroit artist. If your studio practice is based in Pontiac, you are not a Detroit artist. If you just moved to Detroit, you are not a Detroit artist. Why is this false narrative being pumped? We all have a place of origin why aren’t you repping that? I got one real question though, Where were you when we were shooting in the gym?
Entering LSC’s back gallery space, which Massey has decked wall to wall in a large-scale multimedia installation, one first encounters a hugely oversized pair of stud earrings, ornamented with an outline of Africa. Massey has a longstanding and innovative practice of employing massively scaled jewelry as sculpture and performance props (as well as making other more readily wearable pieces). Her work is profound in its ability to demand that the viewer reframe jewelry as an identity marker that can inform one’s social and physical movement in the world, rather than as mere accessories. The invocation of Africa is also unsurprising; Massey is one of many Detroiters who look to Africa in her exploration of cultural roots that were obscured or severed by the enslavement of Africans in the Americas. But for someone who bristles at the diffusion of the Detroit identity to include Cranbrook students, or someone with a studio practice in Pontiac, there is a bit of hypocrisy in identifying with a set of cultural practices associated with a continent much farther away.
Though it might rightly be argued that Detroit proper and the closely adjacent suburb of Ferndale are worlds apart, it’s also likely that more Detroiters have been to Ferndale than to Africa — to imagine solidarity with a continent that has completely separate cultures, languages, foods, politics, and interpersonal dynamics, is both utterly understandable and completely fanciful.
Likewise, many of the fiber-based works in the anteroom of Massey’s installation deal with gingham, which she argues has a connection to historic plantation culture. Initially interested in the graphic qualities of the material, Massey’s research revealed the history of the fabric — according to her, manufactured by way of slave labor and used to create uniforms for plantation slaves, and later adopted by working-class and domestic laborers.
“You see appropriation of it everywhere,” said Massey, in the artist statement accompanying the exhibition. “I can’t wear it anymore.” For some of the gingham-based works in Say It Loud, Massey excised all the white squares from red and green gingham, replacing it with an underlay of kente cloth, to create compositions that reimagine the history of gingham sans slavery. But some of her gingham-based images incorporate photographic images of plantation workers within the fiber matrix, highlighting the same history that other works seek to excise.
If Massey is prepared to challenge the provenance of Cranbrook students in Detroit (whose graduates include artist Nick Cave and Massey herself), one has to question her sense of entitlement to the visual signifiers of Southern culture, such as gingham which has roots variously attributed to Malay genggang and a town named Guingamp in Brittany, France. Simply because Massey’s interest in gingham ends at its involvement in plantation culture does not limit its connection to other parts of history. Likewise, that Detroit’s present-day story and recent past is majority black does not warrant the dismissal of the other demographics that have been a part of its long history, or wish to be a part of its future.
On the traverse side of a room divider is a body of work that looks more like Massey’s own: a set of massive jewelry objects in opposing gold tone and blackish-gray steel, playing out some kind of chessboard standoff in a landscape of mirrored walls. It’s fascinating to consider this display in light of the recent Doug Aitken work, Mirage Detroit, which presents a fully articulated replica of a ranch home in mirrored material, inside the vaulted confines of a long-closed bank branch. It seems like the kind of visitor-from-afar commentary on Detroit that Massey might have something to say about — although perhaps not, since both her show and the Aitken installation are managed by Library Street Collective, whose artistic endeavors tend to align with the public art ambitions of Bedrock Development, the real estate juggernaut owned by Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert. Aside from a shared sense of ambition with respect to Detroit as a platform, one cannot imagine an odder matchup than Massey and Gilbert.
The song “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” by James Brown made its debut in 1968 — just one year after turbulent race relations in Detroit escalated into a violent popular protest, referred to alternately as the ’67 Riots, or the ’67 Uprising. “Say It Loud” became a staple of the Civil Rights Movement, exhorting a categorically disempowered people to take pride in the things that the members of a dominant white social order had used to marginalize them. But as early as 1970, the candor of the Black Power movement was already beginning to get rolled into the Blaxploitation genre. Though the centralization of black characters and stories marked progressive politics on its surface, underlying the genre was a mercenary desire to monetize an African-American cinema-going audience as a consumer base. Likewise, the festishization of Detroit has enabled, in just a few years, artists (and anyone) who claim a Detroit pedigree to gain market leverage.
Is there any reason why Massey should not be a beneficiary of this paradigm shift? Absolutely not. Is she correct in her rancor over the blinding whiteness of articles showcasing the Detroit art and gallery scene, from this classic offense at the hands of Vulture in 2015, to the continuing tone-deafness of this 2018 gallery guide from Artsy? She is, indeed. But of all the authentic attributes that characterize dyed-in-the-wool Detroit artists, the one most due for an overhaul is the notion of creating a regional identity according to the rules of a zero-sum game.
Detroit, at its best, is full of people who work hard and offer a hand to others. It does not need to be a place of binary opportunity, where the people who receive recognition stifle the opportunities of others. And in a broader sense, artists are people who meaningfully engage with and synthesize the world around them — whether that world is Detroit, Ghana, or NADA Miami. But be warned, if you claim Detroit, Tiff Massey’s got her eye on you, and she’s not the only one. So give credit where it’s due, and when you do, say it loud.