When you visit MBAD's African Bead Museum, housed in a century old-corner row house just Grand River Avenue near the intersection of Vinewood Street, you're greeted by a tall, imposing, handsome dude. Olayami Dabls receives dozens of visitors a day (he's been doing this for 15 years), so he might not be very talkative at first. But if you ask him about the bead museum and store, and the space, its history and its meaning, he will invariably open up, and you'll be treated to his warm smile and vast store of knowledge. "Some of these beads are 400 years old," Dabls says, pointing to cases near the back. He speaks of the energy hidden inside them, smiling widely.
Dabls proudly points to his sign-in book, and says "There's people in there from Germany, Japan, Sudan." He doesn't mention all the artists, filmmakers, and famous people. But if you leaf back far enough, you can find Quentin Tarantino's signature. As Dabls told us last year, it really is stupendous that a small, DIY, community-based museum "has reached the attention of the world. It's mind-boggling if you think about that."
If you're lucky, you'll be treated to a tour of not just the museum but its surrounding environment, a complex series of works that expand into nearby lots, buildings, creeping out and over them like a kudzu of visionary art. There's an incredible array of styles to his work. It's possible that this fluidity of style exists because Dabls — easily one of the greatest living artists in the Midwest — dispels the idea that he even is an artist.
"I think of myself as a storyteller rather than an artist," he says, and smiles slightly. "These materials around here — they're there to tell a story."
In 2014, Knight Arts Challenge awarded $100,00 to the museum to cover renovations to this outer realm of his work. The Knight people, in recognizing his work, wrote that Dabls "uses his work to tell stories about African people in particular and about Africa's material culture embodying his ancestor history, mythology, creation myths, systems of thought, and philosophy."
"I'm not interested in doing anything in a contrived way. I'm trying to produce art based on traditional African concepts," he says. "You won't find tall images of half-naked ladies or men with spears here."
Everything has a meaning in the museum. Even all the rusted works, those cans concentrated in one grouping near the outdoor stage out back? Those denote the assimilation of Africans in the U.S., post-diaspora.
"You're giving up something if you're rusting. Your entire cultural identity, rusting away," Dabls says, making a sweeping gesture with his hand. That big bunch of cleverly arranged shards of mirror and tile attached to the side of that one building a full city block away from his shop? That's a systematic grouping of written African languages. This alone is worthy of enshrinement. And Dabls alone is making sure it is in Detroit.