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For co-curators Taylor Aldridge and Lucy Mensah, the opportunity to collaborate on Making Home, their debut Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition was not just an opportunity to familiarize themselves with the museum’s vast collection, but to get to know each other.

“We discovered that we had mutual admiration for two literary works,” said Aldridge, in an email interview with CultureSource. “Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. Both works explore the act and persistence of making a home out of an oppressed situation. We used these texts loosely as motivation and points of departure as we organized the exhibition.”

“During the beginning of our research, it was virtually impossible not to think about home in the context of what has been happening in Detroit and outside of Detroit,” said Mensah. “I think we felt that home has been, and continues to be, a very pressing issue, particularly for communities who do not have the privilege of taking homes for granted. Because we wanted to create an exhibition that would resonate with our viewers—who come from different backgrounds—home seemed to be an appropriate and timely subject.”

MH4 Making Home, installation view, with Urban Extract II (1979), by Charles McGee, in the foreground.

The exhibition divides the space within the museum’s Prints and Drawings galleries into eight areas, with works grouped by theme: Childhood Imagination, Home and Community, Urbanization, Displacement, (In)Security, Domesticity, Melancholy, and The Sublime. The main gallery is dominated by a Charles McGee installation from the 1970s, Urban Extract II (1979).

“The makeshift wooden assembled wall, (with materials excavated from abandoned buildings throughout Detroit) was created in the late seventies by McGee, and marks a period in time when the effects of white flight and post riot became more visible in Detroit's landscape,” said Aldridge. “It was the beginning of an economic divestment in the city, and McGee captured that moment in time, this element of decay and the exodus through an immersive readymade object.” 

Both curators, who joined the DIA’s Contemporary Art department as assistant curators a year ago, embraced this exhibition as an opportunity to dive into the museum’s collection and unearth some of the hidden gems not regularly on public display. 

“I quickly gravitated to Abelardo Morrell’s photograph Laura and Brady in the Shadow of Our House the first moment I saw it in the museum’s records,” said Mensah. “My appreciation for the photograph was confirmed when I viewed it in person. I appreciated Morrell’s ability to represent home through the lens of his own children, who are photographed in the picture lying on top of a rudimentary drawing of home. The artist scrawled windows, a bed, a doorway and picket fence on a space outside his family’s home that was literally in the shadow of the house. His children look absolutely serene, comfortable, and most importantly, safe. I think this picture really resonates with people because of the nostalgia it beautifully captures; the universal longing for safety and security.”

MH2Tyree Guyton, Rosa Parks, Heidelberg Fragment (1986). Oil paint on street sign.

Nostalgia, safety, and the comfort of familial love are certainly emotions that arise in response to the astonishing variety of works on display, but with nearly 50 pieces in the exhibition, there is room aplenty for wistfulness, abandonment, and discord. Some works might be familiar to Detroiters, like a purloined Rosa Parks street sign, a fragment from Tyree Guyton’s long-term Heidelberg Project installation, or a selection of photographs from Carlos Diaz’s work shooting homes in Southwest Detroit, or one of Clinton Snider’s abandoned house paintings rendered on an irregular splay of patchwork canvases. Others may speak of entirely strange worlds, like a 1998 photographic work by Gregory Crewdson, which features a woman kneeling in a flowerbed that appears to be springing up inside a kitchen. The work maintains its own eerie ambiance, but also might be interpreted differently in the context of Detroit’s popular Flower House installation, and other agriculture-art projects, such as ARCHOLAB’S project, AFTERHOUSE

MH1Lucy Mensah (L) and Taylor Aldridge (R) at the opening night celebration of Making Home.Aldridge and Mensah were conscious of striking a balance between stretching the visual vernacular for DIA visitors, and presenting the work in an accessible and digestible way.

“We get about 70,000 students who visit the museum annually, so we wanted to consider this and make sure the exhibition is accessible to all ages,” said Aldridge, as her and Mensah “makes visible the various narratives that are tied to home that we were interested in sharing.”

Inarguably, whatever your definition of home and wherever that may be, these two young curators have created an exhibition to remind us that home is where you make it, while also stretching that definition around the edges.

All photos courtesy of Sarah Rose Sharp.

Making Home is on display at the Detroit Institute of Arts through June 6 and is included in the regular admission.

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