Detroit artist Senghor Reid just might be the embodiment of the ’60s Nina Simone song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”
Just 28 years old, Reid has been something of an urban arts sensation since landing a 2001 Emerging Artist award from ArtServe Michigan. Praised by his contemporaries, Reid has displayed his work at several Detroit galleries and at the National Black Arts Show in Soho in New York City. Last month the Detroit City Council recognized his work as an artist and educator.
Now in his second year of teaching art at Southeastern High School, Reid says he works to foster a creative environment inside the school. He often seems more excited about his breakthroughs in the classroom than his achievements as an artist.
Last year, Reid was commissioned by the Arts League of Michigan to create hip-hop art for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Entitled Rock My Soul: The Black Legacy of Rock and Roll, it consisted of five acrylic paintings on canvas conveying boisterous images, including LL Cool J with a microphone spraying graffiti, and Salt-N-Pepa in a record shop holding up an album by jazz/hip-hop beat-conductor David Axelrod. Reid’s paintings depict the four elements of hip hop: graffiti, DJ-ing, break dancing and MC-ing, giving the story of the genre from its birth in the South Bronx to the present.
Now on display at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History, the exhibit highlights Reid’s ability to draw from hip-hop culture’s tenet of radical expression and transfer that attitude to the canvas.
“To me, hip hop was the beginning,” Reid says. “It’s where I started and where I drew most of my inspiration from. Listening to Rakim, Public Enemy, and Nas I was like, ‘This is where it’s at.’ Hip hop actually felt like home.”
But he’s grown and moved on as an artist.
“Nowadays, hip hop is kind of dead,” Reid says. “It’s sad to say, but hip hop is totally uninspiring, I can’t paint to it and I can hardly paint about it. Right now, I think it’s actually gotten too popular for its own good.”
Reid’s newest show, The Marauders Takeover at JRainey Gallery, consists of 16 paintings that focus on American artists of color whose multifaceted approaches inspire him.
Walking into the gallery, viewers are hit with a vibrant 12-by-16-foot painting of renowned figurative painter and enfant terrible Bob Thompson titled “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” Its immediate neighbor, “Cries and Whispers,” is a stunning 12-by-24-foot depiction of an imaginary last conversation between land art sculptor Ana Mendiata and her husband, artist Carl Andre, moments before she fell to a suspicious death from their 34th floor apartment in Manhattan. Andre was tried and acquitted.
A large mixed-media painting of conceptual artist Adrian Piper entitled “Solaris” draws inspiration from Piper’s “passing” artwork, in which the fair-skinned, interracial Piper often endures racial insults on video while passing as a white woman. Though certain history lessons are required to fully understand Reid’s didactic paintings, their colorful vitality alone speaks volumes.
“He paints folks that inspire him in the arts life because they’re not just one-dimensional,” says Gilda Snowden, professor of painting at the College for Creative Studies. “It’s not surprising that these people are mentors to him, they’re all multifaceted writers, painters, activists, and educators … people without rest.”
Other artists Reid has depicted include figurative painter Robert Colescott, sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, actress Beah Richards and the controversial Kara Walker, whose sexual representations of American slavery got her artwork pulled from an exhibit planned at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1999. In fact, many of the artists highlighted in Reid’s current exhibit have been criticized for their approaches to race.
“I admire artists that choose to go against the grain, no matter what,” he says. “The statements that they make are painful but they need to be made. I knew that my audience would ask questions about the people in my paintings and have to dig further. That was important to me.”
One of Reid’s favorite pieces, “Shock Corridor,” is an imaginary conversation between Adrian Piper and Kara Walker.
“The piece wonders what it would be like if the two could ever meet and have a discussion about the contrasting approaches that both of them use in addressing racial politics in their work,” Reid says. “I wonder what Kara Walker would learn from older African-American artists who have tackled the same issues of race? Maybe she wouldn’t learn anything at all.”
Most of Reid’s current pieces are tagged with short and relevant magazine clippings, a technique that certainly gives voice to his artwork. He calls the ongoing series The Talkies.
“The way he’s doing his Talkies series right now has a serious edge to it,” says Detroit art luminary and gallery owner George N’Namdi. “People have been excited about seeing this type of work coming out of Detroit from someone so young. It’s the seriousness with which Senghor approaches his artwork that sets him apart.”
Dick Goody, director of the Meadow Brook Art Gallery, agrees.
“He definitely stands out,” Goody says. “When he showed at our gallery for the New Generation Detroit exhibit in 2001, we put his painting ‘Bubblegum’ right next to the door to sort of draw customers in. His artwork is very sexy and lush, seductive and visually enticing.”
Reid, who’s soon to be married to his fiancee, Tannisha Whitehead, grew up submerged in the arts. His mother, Shirley Woodson, is an acclaimed painter and longtime Detroit Public Schools administrator. His father, Edsel Reid, who died from cancer in 2000, was a widely respected jazz historian, a collector of black art in Detroit and a longtime host of a jazz radio show on WDET. He was an indescribable influence on his son.
“Growing up in that type of household really allowed me to develop as an artist,” says Reid, who grew up with one sibling, Khari, an older brother. “When we went on vacation as a family, we never did any of that vacation sightseeing type of stuff. I can remember a trip to New York as a child; I think we were at the Statue of Liberty for about 10 minutes. After that, my dad was like, ‘Enough of this, we goin’ to Harlem to see some real shit.’”
Reid acknowledges how vital a creative household was for his own development, and the rarity of such households in Detroit is what inspires him to work with youth who don’t come from such supportive environments. Reid was educated in a variety of Detroit schools before graduating from Cass Tech in 1994; he knows the perils that his students face from firsthand experience. After graduating from the University of Michigan with a BFA in 1998, Reid dove into teaching, starting first at Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit, then moving on to his current position at Southeastern.
Given the state of arts education in Detroit, Reid approaches his day job with both excitement and disdain.
“The school system tends to wean kids off of art around middle school for some reason,” he says. “So as I’m teaching at the high school level, students think art and drawing is something you only do as a little kid. I deal with students who used to come into my classroom every day and look at me like I wasn’t even a real teacher.”
But a visitor sitting in on Reid’s art composition class on a rainy Wednesday sees students who’ve been won over by their instructor, students who appreciate these 45 minutes of relative freedom. It’s clear the artist is in his second natural element — teaching. Reid sits with students who ask him questions instead of hovering from above. Some students work with watercolors or stencil etchings in notepads, while others rework old paintings.
“Algebra is boring,” a spirited but painfully shy ninth-grader whispers. “I got a D ’cause I didn’t like it. Most of my classes are boring. I like Mr. Reid’s class ’cause we can always express ourselves and paint whenever we want to.”
Between his day job in the classroom and taking evening classes for his graduate degree in secondary education at Wayne State University, Reid sometimes has difficulty finding time for his own art — a common plight of working artists.
“I wish he could spend more time painting instead of teaching,” Goody says. “If someone could just give him a big bundle of money to let him paint for a year, it would be amazing to see what he could do.”
But to gallery owner Jocelyn Rainey, Reid’s time in the classroom actually strengthens his resolve as an artist.
“I’ve always been impressed with his passion and ability to keep working,” Rainey says. “It’s not ‘get a job and stop doing art.’ Senghor continues his life in the arts through working a regular job that lets him teach kids to be creative. That’s part of why more people need to be exposed to Senghor, period.”
Recently, Reid had all of his students enter the CarTunes exhibit, a YMCA-sponsored project that gave students in Detroit and Windsor a chance to come up with car designs.
“I want to get my kids involved in as many projects as I can. It’s sort of incentive-based, but kids get excited when they work toward specific goals. It’s a way to keep them excited about art,” he says.
Last year, Reid made his students redesign their own gym shoes. For weeks, other kids at Southeastern were asking how they could start sitting in on Reid’s class.
“I really consider myself a part of the new generation of teachers that are fighting inside the school system to make change,” Reid says. “I was a part of DPS, now I’m giving back. I take that very seriously and I want to finish what I start.”
Although many young artists eventually flock to Manhattan, Reid has no plans of following.
“My father lived there for a while, and he always told me there’s no point going to New York to struggle with eight million other people and raise a family. So I think I already learned enough about it from him. Besides, I don’t just make art, I make black art. And as far as the black arts scene goes, this community is like Mecca.”
The Marauders Takeover runs until Dec. 31 at the JRainey Gallery (1440 Gratiot, Detroit; 313 259-2257). Gallery hours are Saturday noon-5 p.m. or by appointment. Jonathan Cunningham is an editorial intern for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org