'Men of Change' exhibit at Charles Wright museum challenges narrative of Black Men

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

A new art exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History aims to disrupt the narrative about Black men and how they should or shouldn't be defined.

The "Men of Change" exhibition, which opened to the public Sunday at the museum, features more than two dozen pieces of art that pay tribute to transformative leaders in the Black community in politics, sports, entertainment, business, religion and other areas. Created by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services, it's funded by Ford Motor Company Fund. It'll be in place through Jan. 2.

"There is no one narrative about the Black man," said Pamela Alexander, director of community outreach for the Ford Fund who also is vice chair of the Wright Museum board and lobbied to bring the exhibit to the Wright Museum. "Many people think they know who Black men are. There are so many aspects — fatherhood, community, activism — that's what's wonderful about the art. None of them are the same. There's not one narrative."

Detroit native Mario Moore used silicone, resin and other materials to create a hold mold of American business and investor Robert F. Smith for the "Men of Change" exhibit.

The art is just one component of the "Men of Change" exhibition. A panel discussion also was held Friday along with a private reception.

The exhibit arrives in Detroit as one of only roughly 10 stops throughout the country. The first stop was at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in 2019. 

Alexander said both as a Ford Fund member and part of the Wright museum's board, she pushed to bring the exhibition to Detroit. The Wright Museum is the second largest museum of African-American history in the country.

"In terms of telling our story and the importance to the Detroit community, we just knew it was really important to bring it here," she said. "It's an absolutely stunning exhibit. The one thing that is wonderful is how the story, the history and the potential of the Black man is represented not just in the photographs but in the artistic interpretation (by the artists)."

The exhibit — which explores themes such as "Storytellers," "Fathering," "Myth-Breakers," "Catalysts," "Community" and more — pairs artists such Nina Chanel Abney, Derrick Adams, Robert Pruitt, Tariku Shifrew with various trailblazers in the Black community — Muhammad Ali, Kendrick Lamar, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ta-Nehishi Coates and more. Each artist depicts them in his or her own way either through portraits, audio visual installations or mixed media pieces.

The "Men of Change" exhibit also features a history component. Illuminated panels tell the story of transformative leaders in the Black community.

Detroit native Mario Moore used silicone, plexiglass, resin and other materials to create a mold of businessman and philanthropist Robert F. Smith's head. Panels around the head mold read "You only see what you want to see."

"This piece asks the viewer to question the reality of the sculpture and analyze societal perceptions of Black men," said Moore in description of the piece.

One of the exhibit's most powerful pieces is an audio visual installation by conceptual artist Hank Willis Thomas in tribute to American novelist James Baldwin. It weaves real video and audio clips of Baldwin with other footage, including images of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till and former President Barack Obama. At one point, it touches on an interview Baldwin did about Robert F. Kennedy saying a Black man wouldn't be elected president for more 40 years.

Alexander — who said as a mom, she had an emotional reaction to the exhibition the first time she saw it — said it isn't just for Black men or the Black community.

"I think people of all backgrounds need to come see this exhibit," said Alexander. "It's very powerful. There's history to be learned. There's potential to be seen."


'Men of Change' Exhibition

through Jan. 2 at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

For ticket information and hours, https://www.thewright.org/.