by: Stephanie Knight
West African Tradition Meets Detroit Industrialism
In a world where white collar jobs are increasingly in demand and blue collar jobs are few and far between, Detroit industry has endured. There are some, however, who doubt this endurance. There is a debate about the rebirth of Detroit: is it reality or wishful thinking? Can there be harmony between the legacy of Detroit industry and the modern world or should Detroit industry be left to the history books? Motor City Griot Society: Forty Statements proves Detroit industry is something to be revered.
Detroit Industry Meets Ceramic Art
Ceramic artist Steve Glazer’s latest show at River’s Edge Gallery celebrates two traditions: the griot of West Africa and Detroit industry, through 40 ceramic masks. The griot (pronounced gree-oh) is an enigmatic figure from West Africa. He serves many functions in West African society, at once a shaman, medicine man, troubadour, story teller, keeper of family history, and musician. The griot has roots dating back to the Golden Age of the Mali Empire, roughly the 14th century. Steve Glazer first discovered the griot while taking an African Art and Culture class at Indiana State University.
Glazer liked the griot character so much, that he began to incorporate it into his ceramic classes as a project for students. “During the summer of 2014, my ceramic students and I did a series of community demonstrations…I worked at the hand-building table and decided to do some of these imaginary Griot characters because working with human faces always seems to catch spectators’ attention.” His students quickly fell in love with the griot and so the Motor City Griot Society was born.
It grew to be more than a project: it became a spiritual experience.
When I decided to take these pieces seriously, and develop them into a body of work, I realized that something really magical was going on. I found that if I could start with one piece of visual information that I wanted to include in a particular mask, the rest seemed to fall into place almost automatically. A dialogue would begin to develop between myself and the character within the mask I was creating. The character would start telling me how it needed to be put together. As a result, while I wouldn’t actually be speaking to the clay, in the way that the late Mark Fidryich talked to baseballs, a two way conversation would develop with each and every mask as it was being created.
As he created the masks, Glazer incorporated industrial elements into the faces of the griots. What seems at first like random placement of found objects is actually meticulous and deliberate inclusion of the heart and soul of the Motor City.
A Story of Survival
As mentioned earlier, griots serve many purposes and one of them is the keeper of oral history. If you’ve read the book or seen the TV series Roots, you might remember a griot-like character who enables Alex Haley to find Kunta Kinte. The trouble with any oral history is that it is so fragile. Language and writing enables humans to release their memory. The mind is not stressed to remember important information and written histories can survive virtually intact for many generations. That is why Beowulf is so important to British literature: it is a rare instance in which an oral history is written down. In addition, oral history is more likely to change over time. Think of the childhood game of “Telephone” you played.
Oral histories have become even more precious since the advent of technology and modernity in Africa. Not only West Africa, but all of Africa have had to learn to balance tradition and modernism. Recently, I read an article in National Geographic about the Masai who have adapted their tradition of hunting lions as a right of passage to protecting them from extinction. This balancing act is celebrated in Motor City Griot Society. Glazer has combined the enduring legacy of the griot with the grittiness of Detroit’s own
story of survival.
Once known as “The Paris of the West” and “The Arsenal of Democracy,” Detroit’s signature blue collar, industrial history has struggled in the last half of the century to stain afloat.
The griot figure and the history of Detroit go hand in hand if you know the story of both.
Noted art history professor Russell Jones praised the exhibition:
The combination of organic and mechanical forms in these masks speak to the power of the griot to uplift and to critique through speech and song as well as the inherent contradictions of growth and decay in contemporary Detroit…These seemingly opposing forces are informed by the experience of living in Detroit, a city that is as maligned now, as it was once celebrated. The masks reflect the people of Detroit, their spirit and their bodies, as well as the engine of industry that made her the mechanistic core of America. Like the masks, Detroit is full of color, in its people and its culture, but weathered from difficult changes in the industry she was instrumental in creating. Ultimately, the human form of the Motor City Griot Society points the way forward for Detroit, moving with the hearts and mind of its people.
This extraordinary show is up now through July 2nd. Don’t miss your chance to see this once in a lifetime event.