Exploring Yusef Lateef, the visual artist

Patrick Dunn
Special to the Detroit News

Like most, Alhena Katsof knew the late Yusef Lateef primarily for his contributions to jazz music through performance and teaching. So when Katsof discovered Lateef’s drawings for the first time, she says she was “blown away.”

“They are, in and of themselves, spectacular,” Katsof says. “And to know that they were done as part of the continuum that was Lateef’s creative practice was something really special.”

Katsof is the curator of “Yusef Lateef: Towards the Unknown,” an exhibition of Lateef’s drawings, which opens Friday at Trinosophes. Katsof, who met Lateef while she was studying and he was teaching at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, developed the exhibition with the participation of Lateef’s widow, Ayesha, and premiered it in New York last year.

Lateef grew up in and spent many years studying and performing in Detroit, so Trinosophes co-owner Joel Peterson says it made sense for his venue to host the multi-instrumentalist’s work.

“Detroit was such an important city to him,” Peterson says. “Of course, it had to come to Detroit.”

Trinosophes co-owner Rebecca Mazzei says the exhibition also gels with her mission of creating “expositions of cultural relevance” at Trinosophes, bringing under-recognized artistic personalities to light. She notes that Lateef was one of the earliest black artists to convert to Islam, and one of the first to incorporate Eastern musical instruments and influences into jazz.

“On top of incredible artwork and on top of his music, his cultural significance, I think, deserves a little bit more recognition,” Mazzei says.

The visual works displayed in “Towards the Unknown” are as inventive, wild and spontaneous as the spirit Lateef brought to his music. His abstract line work is intricate, energetic and colorful, reflecting in a visual sense his belief in jazz as “autophysiopsychic” music — work arising naturally from the physical, mental and spiritual selves.

“One of the things that is so incredible about Lateef’s visual art is that it’s like a micro-world and a macro-world at the same time,” Katsof says. “There’s a lot of detail in the drawings, a lot of different kinds of mark-making and a lot of color. Sometimes it looks like he’s drawing cellular activity or the ocean, and then other times it looks like an entire galaxy.”

The exhibition’s opening Friday will be supplemented by two Saturday events. Katsof and local writers Bill Harris, Jim Gallert and Lars Bjorn will lead a free panel discussion of Lateef’s work Saturday afternoon, and former Lateef collaborators Adam Rudolph, Ralph Jones and Alex Marcelo will perform Saturday night. It seems the close intertwinement of visual art and music would have pleased Lateef, as illustrated by a story Katsof tells about Lateef’s first gallery exhibition in 2009 at the University of Massachusetts. As Lateef walked up to one of his drawings in the show and began playing the flute, university professor John Bracey asked him what he was playing.

“He said he was playing the drawing,” Katsof says. “He was really engaged in thinking about music through the meditation of making visual art, and there’s a rhythmic quality to the pieces that is very tangible when you’re looking at them.”

Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer.

Yusef Lateef:

Towards the Unknown

Opening reception 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Friday; runs through May 10

Panel discussion

2 p.m. Saturday


YEYI: Adam Rudolph and Ralph Jones with Alex Marcelo

7 p.m. Saturday

$10-$20 donation suggested


1464 Gratiot, Detroit

(313) 737-6606