The Detroit artist and the curator discuss sanctuaries, hair salons, and the art world's conservative underbelly.
Entering Red Bull Arts Detroit, housed in the cavernous basement of the old Eckhardt & Becker Brewery in Eastern Market, you’re lured toward the main exhibition space by a pink fluorescent glow. The curious light emanates from a neon sign by the multidisciplinary Detroit artist Tiff Massey, one of Red Bull’s three artists in residence for the program’s first cycle of 2019, reading, “Bitch don’t touch MY HAIR!!” Written in cursive font and followed by exactly two exclamation points, it’s both foreboding and inviting, an entryway into Massey’s world. Massey, who holds an MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art, has exhibited in international galleries across Europe, but she’s adamant about who she creates for: black women. The centerpiece of her Red Bull Arts Detroit exhibition is a shrine-like display of 22 hairstyles, each braided and beaded in the same splendid shade of gold, and walled in on either side by distorted black-and-white photographs from an African-American hair salon, which feature primarily caucasian models. On an adjacent wall is a row of oversized pink barrettes repurposing another aspect of Detroit’s history: big manufacturing. “Craftsmanship is first,” Massey tells curator Laura Raicovich in the following conversation. “I want you to be seduced by the work. Whether it’s the colors, or the form, or whatever.”
Raicovich, through her work as a curator and author, is also a fearless advocate for equity in the historically exclusive art world. She resigned from her position as director of the Queens Museum at the beginning of last year, after riling more conservative board members with progressive initiatives including increased access for the local immigrant community. Queens, like Detroit, is a site of rapid gentrification. The borough also holds the Guinness World Record for “most ethnically diverse urban area on the planet,” and it’s estimated that some 165 languages are spoken among its inhabitants—but even in an era of sanctuary cities and increasing cognizance of immigrants’ place in society, the idea that we need to break down existing power structures and build new models is one that still ruffles feathers?. “I think we need to be doing more experimentation,” Raicovich says, “and pushing the boundaries in ways that maybe haven’t been pushed in a while.” Here, the two women discuss personal and public spaces, and how we can promote greater equity.
Laura Raicovich—So I don’t know how this interview is working. Is there someone else on the phone?
Hannah Ongley—Hi! This is Hannah. I joined in a minute late and you guys were already getting into it so I didn’t want to interrupt.
Tiff Massey—We were just chatting [laughs].
Hannah—I enjoyed listening to you talk about the automotive materials. The first time I went to Detroit was, like, four years ago, for Buick or General Motors. We did a walk through of the GM headquarters and watched the workers hand-stitching leather onto 3D-printed steering wheels, then they took us on a tour of the Quicken Loans offices. It was really weird. But anyway, how did you two become familiar with each other’s work?
Tiff—Well, I’ve been following [Laura] online for a while, based on conversations and articles that I’ve read. Any time there’s a curator or anybody involved with institutions I want to know what it is that they’re doing and how they’re engaging the community locally, to figure out who’s making the decisions, and things like that. I’m big on first impressions. I can tell if people are real and genuine.
Laura—I’d heard about Tiff’s work really loved what she was doing, but I’d never seen it in person. I did this talk [at Red Bull Arts Detroit] last week, and it was funny because I walked into the gallery, and what you see first is this neon that says, ‘Bitch don’t touch my hair!!’ That’s really funny, and also really not funny. There’s an element of that in Tiff’s work. It gives some people a way in and maybe alienates some other folks. I was standing there in her part of the gallery, and it feels like you’re in her world. And then we shared a meal [laughs].
Tiff—We went to Takoi. It’s a nice low-key spot.
Laura—Tiff has this very hands-on way of working [and a] level of skill and commitment to quality. Even if something doesn’t look hand-wrought, a lot of the work that Tiff is producing is literally made by her hands. There’s a certain relationship to the materials that is really important to the work. You were telling me, Tiff, that you were working alongside the woman who helped you make the hairpieces for ‘Proud Lady.’ Especially in Detroit, where you have a history of big manufacturing, you have an artist like Tiff who is trying to repurpose some of those skills into an art context, that’s super interesting.
Tiff—When I was making jewelry in undergrad at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), everything had to be high-polished. It was almost like I had to compete with commercial jewelry. Even though, nine times out of 10, commercial jewelry isn’t fabricated from sheet metal. They’re doing more casting. Any time that you’re casting, the wax model is damn near perfect before you actually cast the piece, and when you get it out there’s not too much clean-up to do. That’s probably why craftsmanship is first. I want you to be seduced by the work. Whether it’s the colors, or the form, or whatever.
“Just to get to this level, there were so many obstructionists I had to overcome. I’m like, ‘How can I bridge the gap? How can I do something in my community?'”
Even the hairpieces I made at Red Bull—I mean, the backs, which you don’t see, look just as good as the fronts. I’m trying to figure out, eventually, in another iteration, how I can show the process of how it’s made. Mo from Code Blac Studio, who you referenced helping me make the work—I have mad respect for her. This is her occupation. She’s doing hair all day then after work she’s coming in to the studio to support me and my endeavors. I think we made, like, 22 hairstyles. That takes so much time.
Hannah—Was she your own hair stylist before this?
Tiff—Yeah, she’s been my hair stylist for years.
Hannah—And one of the pieces in the show was one that you wore yourself?
Tiff—Yeah [laughs]. I went to perform music for the first time in Berlin last year. I needed some show hair. So we came up with this look, and when I was done with it, I was like, “I don’t just want to throw it away.”
Hannah—Is it a bit unsettling to put a hairstyle—which offers personal protection, and is created inside this sanctuary-like space of the salon—on the wall of a public gallery where people are drinking and probably going to touch it?
Tiff—Unfortunately, yeah [laughs]. Oh my god, I was tagged in a photo—I almost had a heart-attack when somebody posted a photo of them actually touching the hair.
Laura—It’s like, ‘Didn’t you get the message?! It’s screaming at you in pink neon.’ There is this seductive materiality in [Tiff’s] work, having hair that’s detached from the human head, layered on top of these very strange scene of the distorted heads modeling wigs, which all have white features and white skin, and most of the target audience for that wig shop is not white people, it’s African-Americans. That adds to the kind of weirdness around the relationship and racialization of hair. One of the things that I wanted to know, that I didn’t really bring up at the time, when you’re imagining your target audience, Tiff, who is your work for?
Tiff—Black women. Really, this was work for them, for them to see themselves period. And especially inside of these institutions. Literally, like, “Oh, I have that style, that’s me.” In reference to the neon work, I’ve experienced so many crazy situations where my personal space is being invaded. I’m pretty sure on some level we’ve all experienced it. The level of frequency with which I’ve experienced it contemporarily just really shocks me. I think the weirdest time was when I was in Miami for Basel. I’m standing waiting for my friend to meet me, and I’m on my phone, and I see a woman walk by. She walks backwards and just reaches out her hand to touch me. I said, ‘Don’t you fucking touch me.’ Then she went to grab her camera and said, ‘Well can I take a picture?’ I said, ‘No!’ You know? What the fuck is this? Then she just walked away.
Another weird response was this woman who was like, ‘Oh, this is like how pregnant women feel when they get their bellies touched, and they don’t want that.’ I’m like, ‘Girl, I’m a black woman that you just didn’t ask to touch my hair. Why do we have to go through comparisons?’ Why do we have to make up a story about why this is common?
Laura—I think people think it’s okay because it comes out of a place of admiration, but they don’t understand how much of an invasion of space it is, how much it reflects structural social relationships around race, and just how weird it is.
Tiff—If I went and grabbed their hair it would be a whole situation. Most times people want to take my picture, I say, ‘No, but you can get in the picture.’
Laura—You’re sending out these very clear messages, that on the one hand, are totally tough-as-nails—like, here’s the border, here’s the line, don’t you cross it—but at the same time there is this real invitation to intimacy. For me, what makes the work really fascinating, is this play between the two. ‘Bitch don’t touch my hair’ is so in-your-face, for me, as a white woman walking into a gallery space, and then I turn the corner and it’s like an invitation to understand this hair installation, to really look at it and understand the environment of it, to understand the importance of the hair, literally, physically.
Tiff—Yeah. I mean, and the labor.
Laura—And the labor! And time. I don’t think that’s something that’s quite understood.
Tiff—I’m trying to get away from that [laughs]. I don’t know what it is, but I need to labor so much over these bodies of work. I think that’s why I make music too, so I can just say it, you know? Get it out quick.
Laura—Yeah. But you were starting to talk a bit about the school in Detroit that you wanted to start. That’s something we talked about over dinner, when I identified a lot of common thinking patterns between the two of us.
Tiff—I don’t think that institutions are for people of color, period. When I was studying biology at EMU, I rarely saw anybody who looked like me. At Cranbrook [Academy of Art], I was the first black woman to graduate from the metalsmithing department. The conversations, the battles…I’m expected to have all the answers. Not only for myself, but for all black women and for Detroit—any time people find out I’m from Detroit, I automatically become an ambassador.
Laura—I was on a panel the other day and someone said something that sounded perfect. It’s not that the institutions and structures are broken, it’s actually that they’re working exactly the way that they were meant to work.
Tiff—Yeah! Exactly! Just to get to this level, there were so many obstructionists I had to overcome. I’m like, “How can I bridge the gap? How can I do something in my community?” So I bought a large building in 2017 and I thought it was going to be a space for my own practice. Then I saw these high school kids walking around, and they’ve really got nothing to do over there. I’m like, ‘They need to come over here and make some shit.’ I thought about sharing that space with students, but my practice is gonna grow, and I don’t want to encroach on what my idea is for them.
“I’ve experienced so many crazy situations where my personal space is being invaded. I’m pretty sure on some level we’ve all experienced it. The level of frequency with which I’ve experienced it contemporarily just really shocks me.”
I decided to dedicate that space to the community. I want to create, basically, my version of Cranbrook Academy of Art. I want to have at least the 10 art [departments], if not more, because if we’re talking about kids in school not being exposed to art, period, I might need more subsets of genres, like drawing can be infused with a painting department, and things like that. But I also want to give artists a house and a studio, just like Cranbrook has, so they can be on-grounds, and so the students can have access to them. If they have a culture that’s rich, and they have food—that’s basically what is needed, in my community, because there’s nothing over there for the youth.
Laura—I’m so interested in the way that Tiff is developing this project in Detroit, because I think it could really be a phenomenal model. We need new models, because then people see that it can be done. One of the big issues is that cultural institutions have just narrowed in their imaginations about what they can be. That they need to see the way it can play out differently, and see that it can work, and that it doesn’t always need to be based on the models that we already have. I think we need to be doing more experimentation, and pushing the boundaries in ways that maybe haven’t been pushed in a while.
Tiff—Yeah, [laughs] exactly. And only how you can do that—contemporarily, in Detroit—is land. There’s been a big land grab and everybody’s doing the same shit now—commercial spaces on the bottom and lofts on top. They’re trying to compete with New York when we don’t even have that New York infrastructure. It’s interesting how some of these developers are now trying to think about artists. That’s not really real, I’m trying to be sarcastic [laughs].
Laura—[Laughs] They’re not thinking about them much. But maybe they should be! I mean, Detroit is overflowing with artists.
Tiff—It is! There’s so much cultural production. It’s interesting when I get invited to some of the secret meetings that are happening; I’m still advocating for the artists who do not have a space, who may want one in the future. What does that look like and who controls what that space is? Usually the spaces are like death traps. In my previous studio, I was exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide, and the City of Detroit shut down my studio specifically. Not the whole building, just my studio. Then they found out that the building didn’t have a certificate of occupancy. There’s no water in the sprinkler systems. But there’s still people living in that building. [The landlords] were never shut down. I’m still hearing horror stories of artists who moved in, and all their artwork got water damage from leaks. But that’s basically what our options are at this point.
Laura—And in New York, Detroit gets glamorized, because it just looks like there’s so much space. I don’t think anyone thinks about the safety of it.
Hannah—There was a story that ran in the New York Times a few years ago about artists moving to Detroit. It was called “Last Stop on the L Train.”
Tiff—Yeah. A lot of it is just false narrative. I’m trying to [address] a lot of these false narratives within my work. There’s a wallpaper installation that I did called Detroit Flore et Faune, 1920-1960s, from the B(l)ack Then They Didn’t Want Me Now I’m Hot They All On Me series, where I had a black version and a white version facing one another. The white version has all this historic imagery of Detroit, the earliest images I could find—so you see photographs of the train station and all these other early developments along with photographs I took of wildflowers on Belle Isle [Detroit’s equivalent to New York’s Central Park]. The black version has images literally in the negative from when the Detroit Rebellion happened in 1967. Depending on who you talk to, people will talk about ‘the heyday’ of Detroit, then they’ll talk about how this ‘thing’ happened, and it’s like, are you talking about the Rebellion? Because it wasn’t just a thing. That basically changed the way that Detroit looks and functions today. That’s what’s reflected when you look into mirrors on the white wallpaper. So it’s not just pristine and floral images anymore.