News coverage of public art, colorful murals, and bohemian types flocking to buy up inexpensive houses have told a rather one-dimensional story about the arts in Detroit over the last few years. In reality, Detroit is home to a multifaceted and complex arts community, one that includes a diverse array of mediums, backgrounds, galleries, and DIY initiatives that extend well beyond the oft-repeated urban renewal narrative.
Within this community — and particularly in the North End and Midtown neighborhoods, where many artists are concentrated — new talent is calling attention to fresh artistic perspectives born and raised in Detroit.
Take Cyrah Dardas and Bree Gant, for example. They are both Detroit-based artists who, after crossing paths in the local art scene, discovered a shared passion for diversifying artistic spaces and expanding access to them, particularly for women of color. Gant (a multidisciplinary artist and photographer) and Dardas (a multimedia painter) hosted their first pop-up art show together in 2016 and were unsure how it would go. When 400 people showed up, they realized they had tapped into something powerful. “Every space that we’ve created has been so necessary for us and for the folks that join, so we keep doing more,” says Gant.
The “folks that join” now have a name: Art Babes, a feminist art collective 13 members strong. From art shows to critiques to “sketch and sip” events, the Art Babes are constantly working to broaden their reach, bring people in, and provide resources — not just in their own neighborhoods, but throughout the community.
But how does a DIY group like theirs scale upward and outward in a major metro area like Detroit?
“We’re focusing a lot on structure right now,” Dardas explains. She and Gant recently met with Mayor Duggan and are working on proposals to create artist hubs throughout the city, so that artistic resources and venues aren’t as limited to the denser downtown area. They also hope to partner with local businesses and encourage them to look locally first when hiring creative talent for things like jobs, residencies, panels, and art shows. “We’re just not able to access the platform quite as easily,” Dardas says of Detroit-based artists, “so it’s about developing that platform and those relationships.” For instance, Detroit does not yet have an arts council to support the arts community in an official capacity.
The Art Babes mission is to close some of those gaps citywide, without losing the intimacy that makes them a tight-knit and egalitarian group. “We’re talking about how to get things done without needing a hierarchy,” says Gant. “How can we embody the grassroots movements that we all admire and read about within our art practice?”
One way the Art Babes stay grounded in their mission is by staying hands-on and close to the art itself. They just did a collaboration with the organizers of a big electronic music festival, Movement, held annually in Detroit over Memorial Day weekend. On July 14th, a show curated by Dardas will open at Hatch Gallery in Hamtramck. It’s the first Art Babes show to be held at a traditional gallery, which marks a new chapter for them. The show is titled ”Salt Water,” named for the universal theme at its core: “It’s examining the concept of salt water and how different cultures utilize it,” Dardas explains. “It’s kind of this elixir, it’s something that surrounds us, that comes out of us; something that people from every background can use, artistically.”
Both Gant and Dardas will have pieces in the show, with Gant also handling the exhibition writing. Other women from the Art Babes collective will show their work, and a panel discussion will further encourage friends and neighbors to come out to partake in a creative dialogue. For some artists participating, “Salt Water“ will be their first time ever showing. “We’re all interested in understanding each other, and that gives us the space to trust each other,” says Gant. Little by little, the Art Babes are using the transformative power of an organic neighborhood movement to create a richer, more inclusive art community overall.
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