Detroit artist Olayami Dabls engages with solo show at Public Pool gallery

Photo: The crowd at Public Pool on the opening night for “Normal Nudity.”

Artist Olayami Dabls is best known for the African Bead Museum and its surrounding sprawling sculptural installation, for which he received a $100,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant. Relatively unknown were a series of figurative watercolors, all depicting nude figures, that he began painting in 2011, creating as many as 75 of them before halting the project indefinitely. The works remained unseen and stacked in the basement studio of the Bead Museum until a year later, when a businessman taking an art tour of Detroit dropped by. The businessman, Luciano Benetton, bought 10 of the works on the spot, but Dabls never showed the work locally–until the opening of “Normal Nudity” this month in Hamtramck, Mich. at Public Pool, a Knight grantee.

The exhibition, which runs through Dec. 19, is engaging on many levels. Aesthetically, figures sketched in black lines stretch to fill the plane atop plaid-like backdrops. Socially, the works challenge many different elements of stigmatization around the unclothed figure in art—dealing with African subjects as “naked” in the pejorative sense versus European “nudes.” Ultimately, every body is the standard issue format for human existence, but dealing with them, even in as frank and straightforward a manner as in Dabls’ watercolors, still carries a sexual implication—a circumstance that the artist finds objectionable. Finally, from the perspective of identity, “Normal Nudity” challenges the reduction of female subjects to composite body parts/objects. Dabls’ figures have comedic proportions–tiny heads sit atop bodies with exaggerated parts, like an infographic representation of the attention paid to certain body parts over others.

A series of 10 related works by Dabls in hot oranges and washes of yellow.

In a bigger sense, this opening at Public Pool fits in a sea change of greater diversity within the Detroit arts scene. This fall, the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, a Knight grantee, presented Latino artists in both its main exhibition space and the Knight-funded Detroit Affinities gallery, and  “30 Americans” opened at the Detroit Institute of Arts to much excitement and fanfare. (With support from Knight, this exhibition is open free to the public on select weekends.) At the Detroit Film Theatre, The Secret Society of Twisted Storytellers, a Knight Arts grantee, hosted a triumphant mainstage show featuring headliner George Clinton.

It’s encouraging to see this imperative also at play in smaller, artist-run venues, with 9338 Campau just finishing out “The Visibility of Labor,” a show featuring Tsz Yan Ng’s powerful castings of the hands of garment factory workers in China, and the Dabls show at Public Pool, which constitutes the artist’s first solo showing of new work in more than 20 years. What an exciting time to be in Detroit.