Detroit artist Chido Johnson teaches Detroiters to make African wire cars.


Wire cars, those funky toys homemade in Africa of scrap wire and imagination, have come to Detroit, thanks to sculptor Chido Johnson, who was born in Zimbabwe and grew up there and in Zambia with his missionary parents.

Wire cars are a folk art in Africa, where a scarcity of commercial products, including toys, spurred children to create their own playthings. Cast-off scraps of wire and inner tube strips, a jar for bending wire into "wheels," a pair of pliers and wire cutters are all that's required to build a wire car. It helps to have a heavy dose of creativity and very strong hands.

Johnson, sculpture section chair at the College for Creative Studies, has been holding workshops to teach Detroiters the wire car craft for about four years and has held several "cruises," a riff on the Woodward Dream Cruise.

Wire cars look like car skeletons and wobble amiably on their inner tube-scrap "tires," the rubber strips wrapped around the wire wheels, as the drivers push them forward with a stiff wire crook. They are adorable.

But because Johnson is an artist and a very deep guy, these little vehicles are so much more than whimsical toys.

Detroit and Zimbabwe, cultural cousins

Johnson felt a kinship with Detroit when he came to the city to teach sculpture at CCS in 2002. The parallels were myriad.

He felt the shocked reaction of many when they first see the devastation of some of Detroit's abandoned industrial areas and neighborhoods. "But my shock was one of familiarity," he said.

When he was growing up in Zimbabwe, southern Africa was fighting a war of liberation from white minority rule and he saw the destruction that war leaves behind. To him, post-industrial Detroit looked very similar.

Infrastructure was in disarray in both areas, the economic pictures were bleak and people had to improvise ways to get things done for themselves. They were self-reliant, creative and passionate about building a sense of community. He sees the revolutionary energy of Zimbabwe in the push for cultural revival in Detroit today.

"I grew up in Detroit — in another place," Johnson, 46, said. "I grew up with this culture."

The "other place" was Zimbabwe and Zambia, where his parents — his mother a doctor, his father an educator —were American missionaries and supporters of Zimbabwe's liberation struggles.

"There is a way more embedded connection that is really unique about Detroit and Zimbabwe," Johnson said. He sees a parallel between Zimbabwe's struggle and the racial revolution of 1967 Detroit. And the Pan-African movement that espouses the solidarity of Africans worldwide — Malcolm X was a proponent — links the two places.

"I grew up with Motown music in Zimbabwe," Johnson said. "I just didn't relate it to Detroit until I came here." He likes to point out that Motown great Stevie Wonder, who grew up in Detroit, performed at Zimbabwe's independence celebration in 1980 with Bob Marley.

And around that time when a dance called the Jit was gaining popularity in Detroit, where it was born, Zimbabweans were developing their own dance music, also called Jit.

Recognizing these connections, he and collaborators established the Zimbabwe Cultural Centre in Detroit in 2013. Not a physical place at all, it's a digital portal to instigate interaction and collaborations between artists in Harare, Zimbabwe and Detroit.

Now Johnson is raising funds to match a Knight Foundation grant to send Detroit Jit dancer Haleem "Stringz" Rasul to research Zimbabwe's Jit and collaborate with dancers in Harare, as well as bring a Zimbabwean artist to Detroit.

In Detroit, he saw the same factors he grew up with in revolutionary Zimbabwe, especially how both cultures, because of all that they lacked, fostered ingenuity and self-reliance and a strong sense of community, "of people standing together and fighting together," said Johnson.

"You can go down a street in Detroit and see abandoned, empty spaces, but you can open a door and that's where Submerge underground techno started. Or that house was Motown," he said. It may look rundown "but it's actually a rich, rich, rich history with people who are fighters."

"It (Detroit) was a space of realness, of scars on the face not covered up by cosmetics," he said. It was very much like parts of Africa.

And then there's the Car Culture

For his wire car activities Johnson has created the imaginary union Wire-car Workers Association Detroit or WAWAD, whose members are everyone who has created a wire car with him. Its temporary "headquarters" is at Popp's Emporium, an expansion of the growing Popp's Packing art exhibiting and residency program, on Carpenter Street on the Detroit-Hamtramck border.

Johnson said he lived in Detroit without a car for seven years, not so tough for someone who grew up in a walking culture in Africa. But when he decided it was time to have a car, "I got a 1967 pink Cadillac." Pause. "Which I made myself," he says with an impish light in his eyes.

Being an artist, he brought his two worlds together and fashioned the Caddy from wire and painted it Mary Kay Cosmetics pink. It would be another couple of years, when he won a 2009 Kresge artist fellowship, before he owned a real car.

His Pink Caddy is a 1967 model to reference Detroit's riots of that summer. The pink mirrors the pink color that outlined all British possessions on maps during the colonial era.

He built the Caddy as part of a filmed performance of his own Woodward Dream Cruise, in which he walked the car from Jefferson Avenue in downtown Detroit along Woodward Avenue, which separates Detroit east from west, to Eight Mile Road, the border crossing for white flight from the city.

It also recalled his childhood playing with toy cars and joining that memory with his present (and presence) in Detroit, the Motor City. With Johnson the layers of meaning just keep coming.

Since then he has conducted wire car-making workshops all over Detroit, encompassing southwest, the north end, Sterling Heights, Livonia, Ann Arbor, Hamtramck, and with a group of young people from Access, the Arab-American community-building nonprofit, to bring the disparate groups of the city and suburbs together to "cruise as a community." He likens this to the Diego Rivera murals in the DIA that show a harmony of workers of all backgrounds toiling in an idealized Detroit, "how Detroit could be."

In 2011 he staged "Dance for Diego," a wire car cruise in front of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Last month he led a cruise down Carpenter Street on the seam between Detroit and Hamtramck during the Porous Borders Festival. It delights him that a few car owners came from Ohio and New Mexico to participate, as well as two families from Zimbabwe now living in Sterling Heights. For the month of May the wire cars were parked in numbered slots in a "parking lot" at the Boom Detroit art exhibit near Detroit's West Village.

Johnson sees poetry in the connections between people he discovered through the wire car workshops. He led a workshop in Sterling Heights only to find people related to people he worked with on wire cars in southwest Detroit.

"As an artist I was being conscious of going out in the vicinity to represent the landscape of Detroit, not just one location," said Johnson. "I was going to far-flung places. And, in reality, as far out as I was going, people were connected closer than I'd imagined. We are a community, you know. Like, a guy from Mexico and a guy from Zimbabwe are Detroit citizens."

Johnson plans to stage another set of workshops and a wire car cruise during the Sidewalk Festival of Performing Arts Aug. 1.

Check the WAWAD website for details soon.

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