Five Bold Exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit

Jason Revok, “K Loop XL FlourRed Blu FlourYI 8/22/2022” MOCAD. Photo by Keana Freeman.
Jason Revok, “K Loop XL FlourRed Blu FlourYI 8/22/2022” MOCAD. Photo by Keana Freeman.

Located in midtown Detroit on Woodward, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) currently has five exhibitions by local artists that express bold, nostalgic and provocative visions. When you walk into the museum the first exhibit on the back wall are mixed media collages that make up Judy Bowman’s “Gratiot Griot.”

Judy Bowman was raised in the legendary Black Bottom neighborhood in downtown Detroit, which existed just off the iconic Gratiot Avenue. She was the principal of the Detroit Academy of Arts and Science before retiring and becoming a full-time artist at the age of 63. Bowman told Ryan Patrick Hooper on his podcast on WDET radio that she knew she was an artist when she was in kindergarten.

Many of Bowman’s works appear in national and international, private and public collections. Her work is also in permanent collections at the Flint Institute of Arts, Detroit Historical Museum, Detroit Institute of Arts, among many more. She was also one of the national grand prize winners of the 2018 Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series held at Scope Miami, Art Basel.

Bowman sees herself as a storyteller and it is reflected in the title of this exhibition. Griot in West African tradition means someone who “through creative performance, preserves and shares the cultural legacy and histories of their people.” Bowman’s exhibition shows new works that will invite viewers to engage in the rich cultural tapestry of life across the African diaspora.

My favorite pieces from her exhibition were “Detroit Swagger,” “Proud Papa,” and “Mom On Seneca.”

“Detroit Swagger” depicts five African American men in suits and glasses. When I first looked at the piece, it reminded me of my uncle and how they would dress back in the day. The piece reflects old Detroit.

“Proud Papa” depicts a father and his child. I loved how Bowman used gold foil to give the piece some shininess. I also liked how she used different colored brown paper to show the shadows in the father’s and the baby’s faces.

“Mom On Seneca” shows the old times when the aunties, uncles, and parents were in the kitchen playing spades while the kids were in the living room watching TV. The patterns and colors showed how mid-century Detroit African American homes looked.

Around the corner from the “Gratiot Griot” exhibition is a dark room with Bree Gant’s “Wend” exhibition.

Bree Gant is from the west side of Detroit. Currently, she is doing research on the bodily experience of depending on the bus in the Motor City. Gant has collaborated with The Gathering, Visions of the Evolution, and The Fringe Society in the past. She studied film at Howard University while gentrification paved over Washington, D.C.

Gant came back to Detroit when it filed for bankruptcy. For the “Wend” exhibit, she filmed the movement of the body, groups of people, and time embodied fluidly through photography, sound, and video work. “Wend” is supposed to capture mobility both ritualized and lived out on the daily commute of Detroiters on buses and sidewalks of the Motor City.

Gant’s video projection at the center of her exhibit was very intriguing. There were two videos playing side by side. One of the videos had different nature backgrounds and was playing nature sounds. The other video shows Gant interacting with different environments. Some of the clips are of her dancing on the Detroit People Mover, dancing somewhere in Detroit during winter, and another shows Gant in her backyard picking vegetables from her garden. The dark room and the sound from both videos made the space feel relaxing and tranquil. Her movements in the video were very fluent and hypnotic.

As you continue to move through MOCAD, you will see an old church setup with pews and what appears like altars made out of giant church fans. This is Rashaun Rucker’s “Relief From The Heat.”

Rashaun Rucker creates photographs, prints, and drawings. He has won over 40 national and state awards for his work. He studied at North Carolina Central University and Marygrove College. In 2009, Rucker was a Maynard Fellow at Harvard. In 2008 he became the first African American to be named Michigan Press Photographer of the Year and won a national Emmy Award for documentary photography on the pit bull culture in Detroit.

In 2016, Rucker was honored as a Modern Man by Black Enterprise magazine. Rucker created the original artwork for the critically acclaimed Detroit Free Press documentary “12th and Clairmount” in 2017. He was awarded the prestigious International Studio and Curatorial Program (ISCP) residency and Mellon residency at the University of Michigan Institute of Humanities in 2021.

Rucker was born and raised in the American south. “Relief From The Heat” captures the intergenerational identity and kinship sustained within the Black Church. Rucker is reminiscing on the church as a space for communal gathering, familial intimacy, and identity development.

This exhibition is reconnecting Rucker to his roots as a photojournalist. His photojournalism is what brought him to the Midwest via a job at the Detroit Free Press. “Relief From the Heat” is supposed to be a nod to the uncles, aunts, and cousins who created a village that helped grow Rucker into the artist he is today.

Rucker told MOCAD in an interview that he wanted to show his family on his mother’s side and his dad’s side. He didn’t put any facts on the fan because he didn’t want people to be reminded of a funeral home. He wanted it to be “about joy and not trauma.’’ When looking at the pictures, I saw joy. The pictures reminded me of when my family had reunions.

The first picture he took was of the tiny little house and it’s called “The Last Shall Be First.” He gave it that title because that’s where his family started. His great-great grandma was born in the house that is pictured with 13 people and only one bedroom. The house was on a plantation in North Carolina. Rucker was able to buy the house.

In the back of the museum, you will run into a black utility truck in the middle of the museum, and on the walls around the truck are beautifully painted spirals created with a giant spirograph gear that is sitting on a box on one wall. This is Jason Revok’s “The Artist’s Instruments” exhibition.

Jason Revok first started as a graffiti artist and was known to push creative boundaries. He has spent the last decade focusing on his studio practice. Revok uses elements from graffiti culture when creating his contemporary work. Revok has exhibited in Dubai, the Pasadena Museum of Contemporary Art, New York Galleries, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and private collections worldwide.

“The Artist’s Instruments” addresses the effect of automation and factory-based labor across the United States, including these machines’ phenomenal impact on artistic practice. It is a reflection on Revok’s transition from the West Coast to the Midwest. He wants you to consider the relationship between humans and technology. In this exhibition, he uses complex tools as an extension of his body. Revok encourages viewers to consider how the implicit convergence of labor and imagination has shaped our understanding of arts-based technologies.

In the utility truck you can watch a video of Revok creating some of the spirograph paintings that are on the walls. He moves the giant spirograph at a slow pace and does not stop until he’s done. Some of the spirograph paintings have a hypnotic feel to them because of the color choices.

Revok told MOCAD that he owned a spirograph when he was a kid. Years later he got one for his daughter and seeing the wonder and amazement in her eyes brought back the same childlike thrill to him. He set out to make a spirograph painting as big as he can using spray paint.

MOCAD features an outside trailer exhibition space that is separate from the main museum space. On May 11, 2013, MOCAD was gifted artist Mike Kelley’s Mobile Homestead, a life-size trailer-mounted replica of his childhood home in Westland, Michigan, and became a solo permanent installation. The MOCAD staff revealed that the Kelley House has a basement with staff access only. One of the staff members, James Alexander, told me a story of how there is an urban legend of an old inactive bomb that was found in the basement.

Patrons must exit the main museum space and travel outside to the lot behind the museum to the white mobile home to see the “Swan Song” exhibition by Halima Afi Cassells and Shanna Merola.

Cassells is a mother of three, an avid gardener, and an award-winning interdisciplinary community-engaged artist. She is Waawiiyaataanong, who were indigenous to the area that is currently Detroit.

Cassells credits gardening as her inspiration for moving away from painting to using natural and upcycled materials. She is constantly seeking to understand the interconnectedness of global corporatism and British monarchy and common law systems. Cassells is a part of the Waawiiyaataanong Arts Council, Equitable Detroit Coalition, Arts in a Changing America, Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, and a longtime National Conference of Artists member. She has been featured at the Charles H. Wright Museum and the Skylight Gallery in Brooklyn, NY.

Merola is a visual artist, photojournalist, and legal worker. She facilitates the Know Your Rights workshops for grassroots organizations in Detroit through the National Lawyers Guild. She has been awarded studio residencies and fellowships through MacDowell. Merola has teaching appointments at Cranbrook Academy of Art, Wayne State University, and the Department of Art Practice at UC Berkeley. Her work has been in both national and abroad exhibitions.

Depending on when you go, the lighting in the house will create a different feel. When I went during the middle of the day, the sun was shining in the window creating a gold glow that contrasted with the white walls, floors, and ceilings.

As part of Cassell’s contribution to the “Swan Song” exhibit, there is a giant wicker chair where you can read the books next to it. Visitors are encouraged to sit on the chair for selfies. The books next to the chair are old and there is a recent newspaper about the queen of England’s passing. The book that stood out the most to me was the Betty Crocker cookbook because my grandma had the same one.

The collages from Cassells had a scientific feel to them. I thought it was really neat that Cassells used real plants, eggs, and fruit. I was told by MOCAD staff that the plants are switched out to keep them fresh. The white walls of the house and the contrasting colors from the collages and objects gave a cozy and tranquil feeling to the space.

MOCAD’s mission is to “present exhibitions and programs that explore the best of contemporary art, connecting Detroit and the global art world.” They focus on art as a means to human understanding, nurture social change, and reflect their community. MOCAD encourages artists, musicians, makers, scholars, cultural producers to be innovative, experiment, and enrich all who participate and educate visitors about the power of art. They welcome creative voices from around the world.

MOCAD began in 1995 when the Detroit Free Press art critic Marsha Miro and the late Susanne Feld Hilberry envisioned a new museum that would expand Detroit’s contemporary art community. In January 2004, Miro and an advisory group of Masco Foundation and Manoogian Foundation directors, Lillian Bauder, Sharon Rothwell, and Melonie Colaianne, had to pick a location for MOCAD. They renovated a former car dealership on Woodward Avenue.

On October 28, 2006, the museum had its grand opening. Marsha Miro stated “We needed a place that anyone would feel comfortable walking into. I’ve always believed art is critical for everybody, not just the artists, the people who can afford to buy it, or those initiated in the intellectual ramifications of it. Art adds so much to you as a human being. In this city, we need the healing qualities of creativity more than anything.” MOCAD is located on Woodward and Garfield between the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and the Detroit Institute of the Arts. The admission fee is a voluntary donation and can be as little as a penny, though more is greatly appreciated. Free parking and the entrance to the museum is off Garfield Road. The last day to see the five exhibitions is March 26, 2023.