Olayami Dabls, bead museum founder, named 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Olayami Dabls, a Detroit artist and muralist who transformed two city blocks with his vibrant bead museum that draws visitors from around the world, has been named the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist, the foundation announced Thursday morning.

Dabls, 73, will receive $50,000 to use in any way he chooses. He's the Kresge Foundation's 14th Eminent Artist, an award that recognizes one Metro Detroit artist each year for his or her lifetime achievement in art.

“Each of our Kresge Eminent Artists has contributed mightily to our artistic and cultural landscape, but Olayami Dabls is one of those whose work has altered our physical landscape as well,” said Kresge President Rip Rapson in a statement. “The mirrored and multicolored Dabls MBAD Bead Museum and its adjoining sculpture garden shout to every passer-by that the human spirit is alive and dynamic near the intersection of Grand River and Grand Boulevard on Detroit’s Westside."

Olayami Dabls, owner of Dabl's MBAD African Bead Museum talks about the history and bead collection of his museum.

Dabls couldn't believe at first that he'd won.

"It was something that I'd never entertained the idea of being the recipient of one," he said.

Dabls established his MBAD African Bead Museum in 1998. Featuring an array of beads, African symbols, artwork, and jagged-cut mirrors that covers the entire exterior — he's said he uses mirrors because they give people a chance to look at themselves in a way they never have — the museum has drawn thousands of visitors from around the world. The centerpiece of the museum's campus is a sculpture garden with 18 installations, all conceived and installed by Dabls.

“We're literally known all over the world without any modern buildings, or any major marketing techniques because we have something that appeals to the palate of almost every culture on this planet," said Dabls. 

Dabls' career spans 45 years and includes more than 15,000 original pieces of art — paintings, murals, installations, jewelry, and sculptures. African art, traditions and story-telling figures prominently into his work. He is the first Kresge Eminent Artist to also have won a Kresge Artist Fellowship, a $25,000 award in 2011.

“His art is so powerful because it is the community,” said writer and cultural critic Keith Owens, one of the five panelists who spent months deciding on this year's winner before choosing Dabls. Former Detroit News Fine Arts Writer Michael Hodges was another panelist.

Beads, African symbols, artwork, and jagged-cut mirrors cover the entire exterior of the N'kisi House, a building next to the MBAD African Bead Museum.

“He’s presented something that is really deeply spiritual and captures the spirit of the city," said Owens.

Dabls was born in Canton, Mississippi and moved to Detroit as a teen in the 1960s. After graduating from Detroit Public Schools in 1973, he got an associate's degree in drafting technology from the now-defunct Highland Park Community College.

He worked briefly in the auto industry but it was a nearly 15-year career stint at the International Afro-American Museum, the precursor to Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, that really shaped his trajectory as an artist and inspired him to open his own museum. As a resident artist and curator at the museum, he developed curatorial skills "and a passion for contextualizing history through visual storytelling," according to Kresge. 

An installation by Detroit artist Olayami Dabls, the 2022 Kresge Eminent Artist, stands in Detroit's Harmonie Park.

Dabls was born James Lewis, later changed his name to Olayami Dabls, combining parts of his former last name, Lewis, with the first names of his four children — Davida, Alake, Bakari and Makeda. He also used the letters to create Dabls MBAD African Bead Museum. 

Dabls began collecting beads in the 1980s after regularly attending Detroit's African World Festival. Drawn to the the festival's textiles, beads, sculptures — and the stories behind him — they inspired him to do his own research. His collection now includes beads, belts, masks and grave markers from countries including Nigeria and Cameroon.

Dabls has said he hopes his work inspires others to learn about their own culture.

"Everything that I'm doing, there's a connection with the African system of communicating information to change the mental outlook of our people by seeing things that directly relate to them through their culture," Dabls told The Detroit News in 2013.

"Beads carry history about important traditions," said Dabls, who is working now to convert a building near his bead museum into an Airbnb featuring his art. "People all over the planet, from all different cultures, come in here and they connect."

Previous Kresge Eminent Artists include the late painter and sculptor Charles McGee; the late jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave; poet and playwright Bill Harris; textile designer Ruth Adler Schnee; photographer and activist Leni Sinclair; and painter, art educator and historian Shirley Woodson.