Here is a little piece that digs into art, place, space, memory, and cultural landscapes in/as part of a recent arts installation by Judy Bowman in the Sugar Hill Arts District in Detroit.
Looking back while dashing forward
Judy Bowman and the Sankofa Bird
By: Julien Godman
There, standing beneath Judy’s work, a small crowd of designers, architects, art consultants, and community-minded visionaries had gathered. High above on the side of a new parking structure, were ten vibrant pieces of art, printed on giant panels of mesh and framed in thick metal. But more so than the art itself, what truly gleaned in this brief champagne moment, was the artist, Judy Bowman, who seemingly held the essence and values that likewise emanated from the characters and creatures in her work– pride, joy, strength, with a panache of sway and swag, too.
At the corner of Garfield and John R, in that pocket of space that use to be a bumpy gravel and dirt parking lot, in the Sugar Hill Historic District AKA Sugar Hill Arts District, in the general area that has more recently been coined ‘Midtown,’ and beside places like N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Seva, and Socra Tea– runs a brand new development, ‘The Freelon at Sugar Hill.’ The building itself, designed by the late Phil Freelon, which one can read more about on the developer’s website, or this handy Detroit Free Press article, is essentially a feat of collaboration between public, private, and individual– with organizations at the helm like Develop Detroit, and Preservation of Affordable Housing (POAH), along with a slew of partner support from local and national sources, such as the City of Detroit and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). Additional monies from other sources and grantors demonstrate a marked collaborative effort for the realization of this project– a project which also includes 25% of units designated as ‘affordable,’ and around a dozen specifically for formerly homeless veterans.
But art, and the situation of this building in a historic district of music and art, brings us back to Bowman and the process that led to her work being chosen. Fittingly, a local organization with a track history of public engagement, Sidewalk Detroit, was hired by Develop Detroit as the ‘Community Engagement Consultants’ to essentially design, strategize, and implement varied engagements around the project, but more specifically to inform the artwork that would be physically installed and lead the search for an artist on caliber with the historical weight attached to the Sugar Hill Arts District.
As part of this search, Sidewalk Detroit formalized an advisory council to guide the selection process of an artist and vote on important decisions related to artist criteria, values, selection of works, but also to consider certain historical elements and cultural typologies appropriate and geographically relevant for such an installation. And too, an interesting element of the overall art installation is also a functional one, as the pieces, which spread large lengths of the parking structure exterior, also block car headlights from entering adjacent residences. For transparency, the advisory council included: Cornelius Atlantis Harris, Dean Nasreddine, Jamon Jordan, Marsha Music, Paulina Petkoski, Zeb Smith, Tanya Stephens, Maceo Keeling, and Sheila Mitchell.
Through this six-month process, apparent notes of positivity and joy, specifically ‘Black joy,’ emerged as important features of the project, but in another criterion, strength was important. With these preliminary standards in mind, Bowman was eventually chosen. And, after personally meeting Bowman in July, it was immediately clear to me that she is as vivid and engaged, and full of the values, of which the advisory council wanted to impart into the world.
A month after this reception, in a phone interview with Bowman, she described to me her family, her upbringing, her role models, and the creative essences that have accrued over the years– all of which have directly inspired her voice today. Counter to negative stereotypes of Black communities, which Bowman made a point of mentioning, she described growing up in a strong Black neighborhood, in a strong Black family, which crossed the gamut of characters and social threads. Echoing these familial bonds, Bowman shared “you could be the good, the bad, the ugly, but when you came into our house, everybody was happy to see you there.” She added that over the decades, nearly twenty people, outside her nuclear family, lived in her family home on Detroit’s Eastside. In this light, Bowman’s work centers on this extended family resilience and foundation, as well as love, acceptance, celebration, and camaraderie.
Though the Sugar Hill Arts District has music, especially jazz, woven into its roots, Bowman described the two-block area as something akin to Paradise Valley in Detroit’s long destroyed Black Bottom neighborhood, a former vibrant Black community enclave, and the place where Bowman’s family landed in Detroit upon arrival from Georgia, when she was just a toddler. Talking about her research process involved in the Sugar Hill art commissions, Bowman shared a bit about Sugar Hill’s history– as “it was the entertainment district . . . a place where more Black and White entertainers performed together.”
Befitting this lively musical and entertainment precedent, are the ten pieces of work that now hang on the side of a parking structure, with a handful of them depicting larger than life musicians, painted with a certain aura of the ‘good ole days,’ but more accurately, as a way to bring the pillars and talents of the past with all of us into the future. And that is where the significance of one of Bowman’s commissioned pieces comes into focus, the Sankofa bird.
Imagine a mythical bird, rooted in oral histories and sociocultural traditions of the Akan peoples in West Africa, as it flies into the future, perhaps simply forward, with its head turned behind it, toward the past. Sankofa, translated literally as San⏑Ko⏑Fa, essentially meaning ‘go back and get it’ comes from the Akan proverb, ‘it is not taboo to go back for what you forgot.’ For Bowman, Sankofa plays an immense role in her work and style. But beyond Bowman’s interpersonal reflection of her work, that “everybody needs love and support,” the life lesson of Sankofa is a primal waypoint for her. Her note, that we ought to ‘take the good things from the past with you as you walk into the future,’ is another element of how Bowman’s art resonates a certain raw strength over gradual empowerment– because the latter means one was seemingly without strength. More so, on a wider Africentric note, taking these good things with you into the present, so that they carry into the past/future, is testament of a cyclical worldview, and touches on the larger perspective of the value of what Sankofa represents, because on a base level it means preservation of those good things, that strength, from generation to the next.
For Bowman, Sankofa holds a lot of currency in her life, as she puts it “I enjoy the music [jazz], but I enjoy the images of the musicians more” — because for her the good things were more than just the, albeit powerful, sounds of sax and bass that she recalls growing up in Detroit, it was also the characters, the personas on stage, the ‘sway of the ladies’ and ‘swagger of the men,’ the organic nature of the spaces, in places like Paradise Valley, in Sugar Hill, in many family homes, too.
Along with the Sankofa bird are two other figures that have given Bowman inspiration in her work.
The first is Arnishel Matthews, Bowman’s father, whom she described as a charismatic rock of the family. Intertwined with her recollections of her father, and her family home, are the same animated characters that fill the spaces of her memory. For Bowman, her family and her father are not in total isolation to the many characters on the block, the uncles, aunts, the trumpet players and pianists, or the many unknown, yet upbeat, faces that swam through old Detroit venues. Such a rich coming of age story yet again counters negative stereotypes of the Black community, of which Bowman not only rejects but also reiterates she has no connection to, noting “my experience growing up is not what seems to be portrayed about our culture.” Nay, this multi-faceted and full-of-life upbringing, likely has directly contributed to present-day Bowman justly describing herself and her work as an apparent ‘visual griot’ of representations and movement– in full color.
Even more dynamic, the second role model of hers is Charles White, a well-known 20th century Black visual artist, whose decades of work, emerging early on during the Great Depression, often used linoleum-block printing techniques. And notably, White contributed to the ‘Chicago Black Renaissance.’ Though White’s work, Bowman admits, was not exactly akin to her own messaging, his techniques, approach to storytelling, and highly emotive and often contrasting visual masterpieces, have remained a pool of inspiration.
For those interested in Bowman’s work and story, visit her website, or next time you are in the area, go see her works in person at The Freelon at Sugar Hill.
Top two photos of event, taken by Julien Godman. All artwork and aerial photos by Lunar Haus.