Olayami Dabls is the owner of the MBAD African Bead Museum, a major repository for African artifacts
Olayami Dabls hardly needs to give visitors directions to his MBAD African Bead Museum, although its Grand River and Tireman location is tucked away off I-96, a short drive from the city’s established cultural touchstones. The minute you catch a glimpse of the building, you know you’re in the right place. A house and commercial building are splashed with colorful African motifs and glinting mirrors that catch the light; behind and beside the building, an art installation that transforms found objects into figures of beauty also spins a story about the complicated history between Europeans and Africans.
Inside, every surface, vertical and horizontal, is hung with beads in a dazzling variety of sizes, shapes, and colors. To the uninitiated, they are simply adornment. But to Dabls, who has spent a lifetime studying beads and other aspects of African material culture, their meaning is unlocked. Beads, in African cultures across the continent, were a way to communicate status, power, and one’s role in society. Wear beads to which you were not entitled and the punishment could be death.
Dabls worked as a mechanical engineer for years, although he minored in art in college. After being injured in a car accident, he began creating art again. The beads became an important part of that.
He began gathering his knowledge about beads, and African material culture as a whole, when he met a trader at a Detroit Public Schools career fair who was wearing a string of beads around his neck. Dabls offered to buy them, but the man took great offense. The beads went back five generations in his family, the man explained, and went far beyond a simple piece of jewelry. “They are something so significant,” Dabls says. “They can carry and hide so much information. They are communicating information about your family, your life, your culture – and if you don’t know about this, you don’t know what they are saying.”
Originally, beads were made from natural materials, but when the first Europeans came to Africa they brought beads back to their countries and began reproducing them in glass. They became popular, so traders began encouraging beadmakers in Africa to make them from glass, which the traders could then sell. The slave trade disrupted this relationship. “When they switched from trading in goods to trading in people and to colonization, beads lost value because the culture was interrupted,” Dabls says. Under European rule and during slavery Africans were not allowed to wear their beads, so much of the culture disappeared. However, the beads themselves, and the knowledge about them, did not.
“In books, they were writing about them in the past tense, but they were still being made and used,” Dabls says. “I began to hoard them, and realized I need to do a bead museum or else no one would see them.”
As Dabls began collecting the beads, he also began learning as much as he could about African material culture and the significance of beads to communication and trade. He began selling them – most of what he displays is for sale – and using them in his art, but setting the best aside with an eye toward his plan to open a museum. In 1998, a woman named Audie Riddick donated the building in which the collection is now housed to Dabls so he could realize his goal.
She also donated a house, which sits next to the larger building and is equally as eye-catching, with colorful mosaics crafted of beads ornamenting the exterior. That house was the once and future home of the museum, until the roof collapsed. Thanks to generous grants from the Kresge and the Knight Foundations, Dabls will repair the roof, replace the floors with new ones made from reclaimed wood, and paint the walls white to set off the colors of the beads. Running the museum has been a struggle at times, so receiving the grants was deeply gratifying. “The grants were a stamp of approval for what we are doing,” he says.
The off-the-beaten path location hasn’t been a detriment – thanks to social media and sites like Flickr, where people share images of the museum and grounds, people from all over the world visit the museum. When he first came to the neighborhood and began decorating the buildings with beads, neighbors were watchful but would not come visit, he says. Now, people come by with their children and he welcomes field trips to both the museum and the art installation in the adjacent field. Neighborhood groups use the installation’s stage for performances and community gatherings, as well. “Our structure has been to do things for people in the immediate community,” he says.
That installation tells a story using materials that are important in African culture: iron, wood, and rocks. His extensive use of mirrors carries meaning as well. “Mirrors always fascinated me,” he says. “The temperature rises as far as 10 feet from a mirror, and you can see what is behind you. It makes it seem closer.”
Interestingly, had the roof not caved in at the first building, he never would have begun to work on the installation, he says. He began by clearing debris, and slowly began creating pieces that add up to a cohesive story about the relationship between Europeans and Africans, using an African-style parable narrative. “History was never meant to be told as factual,” he says. “The most important thing with history is to learn the lessons that need to be learned.”
All photos by Doug Coombe.
This story originally appeared in UIX Detroit here.