Cars come to life in Detroit.
The artist collective Ogun was founded in the early 1990s, the name taken from the Yoruba orisha, the god of metal. The artists located rusty, abandoned automobiles on the streets and in the fields of Detroit, and turned them into “Urban Monumentz,” painted and embellished with found objects in a way that calls to mind African funerary ware and dedicated to fallen musicians, poets, activists or artists. The dedication ceremonies were performances by a collaboration of six to ten musicians, two dancers and several poets. Such rituals have taken place at grounds of several museums, including Cranbrook Art Museum and Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as well as in Boston, MA, and Kingston, Jamaica.
The core of the collective is African Master of Arts (AMA) Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts, a seminal member of the Detroit arts community; printmaker, videographer, filmmaker and community activist M. Saffell, AMA; painter, printmaker, videographer Lester Lashley, AMA; musician, sculptor Howard Mallory, AMA; found object and assemblage artist Dyenetta Dye, AMA from Wayne State University; and printmaker, painter and collage artist Zola Adjuma, AMA.
Potts, the founding member of the collective suffered a debilitating stroke a few years ago, making it difficult for him to speak. Joining our discussion on his behalf, are two other founding members, M. Saffell Gardner and Dyenetta Dye. Saffell and Dye spoke with me about Ogun, the Detroit art scene and their recent collaboration with Apetechnology for the exhibition Vision in a Cornfield on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit through December 30th 2012.
Cary Loren I’d like to talk about how you both became active in the Ogun art collective.
M. Saffell Gardner I’ve known Aaron Ibn Pori Pitts since the late ’70s or early ’80s, but we got together at one point during the late ’80s to do a two-person show. He had a print shop in Detroit on Hamilton, so we said, “Well, let’s make a poster.” The poster turned into a print, and that started our collaboration. At one point, Ibn started to enter a bunch of marathons. He ran extensively. He trained at Rouge Park in Detroit, and he started to notice cars that had been abandoned. He’d see them—well, everyone used to see them—on the streets. He found one in Rouge Park and he contacted Dye and I, and said, “Okay, well, we’re going to start working together.” Then he got in touch with Lester Lashley, founding member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians in Chicago and that started the collaboration. One of the things we did was to recycle abandoned cars and turning them into urban monuments.
CL Once you found these cars, Ibn started to perform a ritual around them.
MSG Yes, we would start working on the car, and then Lester would come in and perform a sort of a ceremony around the car—circling around with one of the shakers he had made. He used to make shakers out of old film canisters that he would decorate. He would give everybody a shaker and we would walk around the car. . .
Dyenetta Dye These performances combined so many different elements: the musicians, the dancers, the poets. You’d hear words. The words were translating into something in your head and you’d put a symbol on a car. It became one of these things where we just bouncing off of one another, you know? We would begin a lot of the happenings with a libation ceremony where we would dedicate a poem to the project at hand. That poem would get repeated throughout the day while we were working on the cars.
MSG The intricate performance added a layer to the symbols, the paint and the cars, and doing the rituals. Ibn would go and pick up seven to ten different musicians and a couple of dancers. He would recite his poetry while the musicians performed; they played free jazz and riffed on what Ibn was saying.
CL It didn’t draw from pop culture, but from history—ancestral history. Ibn seemed deeply connected to explaining the African diaspora and showed an appreciation for Vodou culture and Haitian art as well…
MSG I believe that was part of it, but also a number of the things that we did in our performances were anti-establishment. They went against the grain of what the art history books say “art” should be. The art that we did was more of a community-type of a thing.
CL I remember that Ibn referenced African burial grounds in one of his first shows of his that I saw.
MSG That was after the African burial grounds were discovered in New York. They were going to build a federal building and came across the burial ground. That discovery looped into what we were doing already, in terms of raising up the ancestors and performing ritual ceremonies for those who had passed on. It was kind of a healing experience. I’m not sure if they used coffins back then, but these sites had unmarked graves. He was trying to raise the spirits up and thank them—to give them the kind of salutation that they probably needed and probably didn’t get at that time they were buried. Ibn tried to incorporate that into our project as far as giving thanks to the ancestors.
CL Yes, at a lecture Robert Farris Thompson gave at Cranbrook, I bumped into Ibn and we had a conversation about his interest in Vodou. He was well acquainted with Thompson’s work showing how history traveled through different cultures. (Robert Farris Thompson wrote the book, Flash of the Spirit: African & Afro-American Art & Philosophy in 1984, discussing how five distinct African civilizations have shaped the specific cultures of their New World descendants.)
MSG Thompson’s book related to a lot of the things that we were putting together before the book came out. It dealt with some of the symbols and with the way that a lot of the religions came over from Africa to South America—Santería and such. They came up through the islands and then on into European America. Part of that was seen as being underground. Those kinds of things really hadn’t been included in your regular type of education if you went to school for your art degree, so we were trying to get into it. We had experienced these cultures ourselves by traveling to different cities.
CL I like the correlation between the gods of African Vodou like Ogun, which relate to metal, iron, the automobile, and Ibn’s own history of his parents working in the auto industry. It’s common to a lot of people from Detroit, and it’s interesting how you reclaim that history and labor through this ritualized performance, using cast-offs and remnants from the automobile industry as a focus. It was part of our abandoned culture, as a city, in a way.
MSG Right. That was another stream of consciousness that we developed as we recycled or reappropriated things that had been thrown away. We often discussed our performances and installations, noting that this society was becoming a throwaway society, where they even throw away people.
DD There is this interesting kind of transposition of value. As a commodity a car starts with a certain kind of value, an economic value. Then it’s discarded and we create a different kind of value from the discarded car.
MSG The way we found these cars; they had been burnt and the metal was rough and rusty, so we would work into that eroded material and give the car another kind of a spirit.
CL It was that renewed spirit that you brought to the abandoned cars that prompted Mike [Kelley] and I to bring Ogun into the installation that we were never able to finish. In the mid ’90s, Mike and I came across this throbbing automobile in the middle of a cornfield, with purple running lights underneath it, just glowing. There was no driver and the doors were locked, but it was just making this racket, this noise out in the middle of nowhere, and I started to film it. We discussed the idea of filtering our Destroy All Monsters music through automobiles too, and then animating them to look like the cars were speaking and dancing to the music.
I learned about Ogun’s work in the late ‘90s and thought that would make an interesting collaboration. Ibn agreed to do it, but Mike was always too busy with his own projects to get it together. He was interested in having it happen, but then Ibn had the stroke in March of 2008.
MSG Right, Ibn was delivering a eulogy for Donald Waldron, a major musician in Detroit. He had written something to perform at the memorial and before he could get up, he collapsed; he had a stroke right there at the funeral home.
CL And then Mike died suddenly in January of this year, and I figured the work would never happen. . .until I spoke with Rebecca Mazzei (Deputy Director at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit) when we were working together on the MOCAD Box journal (Box #1 featured the theme of Afro-futurism). I told her about this installation that was never finished. She wanted it to open in the fall, so together, Saffell and I paid a visit to Ibn and his brother Nehemiah at the nursing home. Ibn responded positively. I had some misgivings because of his health, but he said not to worry. He gave his blessing and we contacted the other members of Ogun to get started.
So this summer we worked with the art collective Apetechnology to rig the cars up. We commissioned them to animate the cars and play random Destroy All Monsters samples. As visitors enter the exhibition, their presence triggers sensors near the cars to create a response of movement and sound. The cars have been heavily decorated; enshrined by the handiwork from Ogun and Olayami Dabls, another of Ibn’s artistic collaborators.
MSG We underwent a pretty long process of finding and working on the cars, and then we met with Chip and Leith, of Apetechnology, about how we wanted them to animate the cars.
CL I first saw Chip and Apetechnology’s stuff at the annual Maker Fair in Detroit. He had these giant skulls that moved around and other machines that moved and played music. I knew we’d collaborate one day. Rebecca, Saffell and I visited their “Destroy compound” shortly after we’d agreed to move forward on the “Vision in a Cornfield.” They had tons of recycled industrial machinery at their “compound”—electronics, giant noise machines.
MSG This collaboration is probably the most phenomenal art collaboration I’ve ever been involved with; you have the people from Apetechnology, and then you have us—Ogun—and we’re retooling and upgrading, you know, channeling…
CL And we haven’t exhibited in Detroit much, and together it’s kind of a new experience.
MSG Well, Ogun did some things in Kingston and Maple. We were brought in by this 3D corporation to create a sculpture. We did a van onsite, then we did one in Boston, and one at Cranbrook Museum, and another on the grounds of the Charles H. Wright Museum.
CL I’ll end this with a quote from Ibn. He said, “the rhythmic keyhole of the art allows for collaboration at the crossroads. The arts allow us to be transformed with heightened perception and no longer strangers to the inter-connectedness of other cultures. Their message to us is the honor their legacy left in eternity.”
The exhibition Vision in a Cornfield is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit, Michigan through December 30th.
Cary Loren is an artist, photographer, videographer and co-owner of the Michigan bookstore, Book Beat. A close friend of the late, Mike Kelley, he was a founding member of Kelley’s band, Destroy All Monsters.