MOCAD’s ‘Sonic Rebellion’ takes on music, art, politics

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

“Sonic Rebellion: Music as Resistance,” the latest show examining the disturbances of July, 1967, will open Friday at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.

The multimedia exhibition curated by Jens Hoffmann will run through Jan. 7.

“Like everyone who’s spent time in Detroit,” said Hoffmann, who commutes between New York and Detroit, “I started thinking about the 1967 riots. But we’re not a political or cultural history museum, so how do you look at this in an interdisciplinary way?”

To find the answer, he and his assistant curator, Ford Foundation fellow Robin K. Williams, spent months talking to Detroiters connected to music and political resistance to see what was important to them.

“We want to be very modest in the way we talk about this,” Hoffmann said. “There are so many people in Detroit, and everybody has their own narrative about this story.”

What emerged was a 30-plus group show, including international artists and Detroiters alike, that aims to present a material history of music and contemporary art inspired by urban upheavals from 1967 to the present.

Or to put it another way, the exhibition tries to tease out the role music plays as a catalyst for social change and protest, and how that finds its way into the visual arts and politics.

It’s a wide-angle snapshot that covers a broad spectrum of cultural developments and the ephemera they generated in the wake of the nation’s worst urban riot.

On display are publications from the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, graphic artwork by Black Panther Party Minister of Culture Emory Douglas, photographer Leni Sinclair’s portrait of the MC5’s Fred “Sonic” Smith, and concert posters and fliers from the Grande Ballroom, the much-loved rock-n-roll performance space which closed in 1972.

Fans will be delighted to see techno pioneer (and MOCAD board member) Derrick May’s original electronic keyboard, on which he laid down some of the initial tracks that launched a movement.

Detroit artist Tylonn J. Sawyer has several very cool oil-and-glitter canvases on the wall, including “Class Photo #3: Black Convening,” with five women holding Nina Simone masks that block their faces.

Installations that play with sound include a tower of 1980s boom boxes constructed by New York multimedia artist Bayeté Ross Smith, which will play a three-hour soundtrack Smith assembled. (Most of the boxes still work.)

“He interviewed a cross-section of Detroiters,” Williams said, “doing oral histories and taking suggestions for songs,” many of which will find their way into the musical loop.

Also toying with the notion of sound is Brazilian artist Vivian Caccuri, who’s constructed a wall of massive stereo speakers that will play gospel music she recorded at local churches.

Candles placed right in front of some extremely impressive woofers will flicker and dance in response to the sound waves — a nice visual metaphor suggesting music’s ability to influence the outside world.

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy

‘Sonic Rebellion: Music as


Friday-Jan. 7

7 p.m. Friday, opening party with music from Octave One

$5 suggested donation

Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, 4454 Woodward, Detroit

(313) 832-6622