Olayami Dabls’ speech is concentrated in profound intelligence. And his voice is as powerful as his collection of beads and African art, largely collected from the bead people of Mali, West Africa. Through both mediums, he tells a story about sincerity guiding Detroit’s newer qualities, and the remarkable cornerstone for African culture, MBAD African Bead Museum.
Dabls is owner and museum curator of MBAD African Bead Museum. He moved to Detroit with his parents from Mississippi because of the political and social unrest in the South during the 60s. Detroit provided him and his family with ground to anchor for freedom and inspired his own aim for wealth within culture.
“When I was younger, I took my girlfriend to cultural pockets in the city, like the Polish district and Mexican town. But I wanted to create a place for Africa in Detroit,” said Dabls.
In 1985, he started collecting African beads. That same year, the African Bead Museum opened. Located on Grand River Avenue, you can find within African artifacts; sculptures, textiles, pottery, and bead works dating back hundreds of years from cultures throughout Africa. A mission to exemplify the vastness of African material culture. According to Dabls, 90 percent of beads are African trade beads with 200-300 years of culture.
“I wanted to show people this immediate area and that we take pride in it. It never occurred to me that this would become a place that whole world would [be proud of], too,” said Dabls. “African material culture is locked into our DNA. Something about it triggers a sense of familiarity everywhere.”
There are four rooms inside the museum, and installations outside in the spring and summer time. Within the four rooms, MBAD is a mythical, uncommon world, all its own. He described “Happy Laughing” sort of exhibitions and that what is to be taken away by visitors is that human differences are learned behaviors.
“We are all made of the same elements, mostly iron. One of our exhibitions was called, ‘Teaching Rocks Table Manners.’ The woods, the trees are mother symbols, and the broken mirrors symbolize seeing yourself in a way that you never have before.”
Dabls believes it is risky to solely rely on government funded education because of its conventional limits. Dabls received a Knight Foundation Grant for $100,000 in October of last year to continue his work. It’s well deserved, as his museum is important to the progression of societal knowledge on our humanity.
“My responsibility was to care for materials for a particular group, and people from all over the world came here by word of mouth. There is a huge amount of energy in this place. Don’t forget about your ancestors and the lives that live within these beads.”
He will tell his visitors about the meaning behind the beads, their origins, how they can be used, and old stories attached to them. It is the sort of sincerity that he offers that will alleviate fears that people hold on to. Sincerity will develop a community.
“The city will come back. There are lots of old culture groups left in the city – here, alone – but I see things coming back. There is flux. Go away [from here] with a sense of what’s going on. Know – or be told. This place has taken up a life of its own.”
6559 Grand River Ave. Detroit, MI 48208, 12 p.m. – 7 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Photos by Nick Hagen