Housing one of the largest and most significant art collections in the U.S., and the only museum in the country featuring works by historic African American artists like Robert Scott Duncanson and Henry Ossawa Tanner, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) should be at the top of every art lover’s travel list.
The DIA has been at the forefront of collecting and presenting world-class art from artists of the African Diaspora in the Americas, and it was the first museum in the U.S. to dedicate a curatorial department and galleries to African American art. Today, the DIA houses a collection of over 600 artworks created from the mid-19th century to the present, in its Center for African American Art. Fun fact for our metro county locals: Admission is free for residents of Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.
Valerie Mercer, DIA’s curator of African American Art since 2001, says there are so many great pieces to see it is impossible to narrow it down to just a handful, but the works below are on the top of her list of works only on view at the DIA that you won’t want to miss:
Bird by David Hammons
In this striking sculpture, Hammons combines found objects to refer to the constraints on opportunities for African American males due to systemic racism in American society.
Nip/Tuck (Portrait of Lillian Dandridge) by Titus Kaphar
Kaphar’s powerful painting uncovers hidden truths in American history by emphasizing aspects of Black humanity through the examination of complex issues, such as historical narratives, cultures, identities, genders, and more.
Quilting Time by Romare Bearden
Bearden’s large-scale work, commissioned by the DIA, celebrates family gatherings with their long-held traditions and warm fellowship cultivated in the African American community.
Ellen’s Isle, Loch Katrine by Robert Scott Duncanson
The DIA is home to six works by Duncanson, now considered the first African American artistto be internationally known. This painting was inspired by Sir Walter Scott’s 1810 poem “The Lady of the Lake, and was critically acclaimed.
Something You Can Feel by Mickalene Thomas
In the words of the artist, “Just like my first muse, my mother, all of my muses possess a profound sense of inner confidence and individuality. They are all in tune with their own audacity and beauty in such unique ways… Just as my muses insist on their visibility and identity, I want my viewers to feel present with fierceness and boldness. Through the act of seeing, I want them to feel validated just as much. I want them to claim their rightful space in the world.”
Officer of the Hussars by Kehinde Wiley
In many of his works, Wiley inserts contemporary African Americans into an artistic tradition that previously excluded them. This monumental painting depicts a young Black man on a rearing horse, sitting high on a leopard skin saddle and wielding a sabre. It cites the 1812 painting The Officer of the Hussars by Théodore Géricault at the Louvre.
Minnehaha by Edmonia Lewis
Lewis, an artist of African American and Native American (Anishinaabe/Ojibwe) descent, spent much of her career in Rome. Between 1866 and 1872, she completed a series of marble sculptures on the popular theme of Hiawatha and Minnehaha, drawn from The Song of Hiawatha, an epic poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow written in 1855.
Beyond Midnight (Magie Noire) by Betye Saar
In this work, Saar questions the attitude held by some African Americans that light skin is favorable, instead celebrating darkness by placing the image of a woman, who is a ritual healer, against a brilliant blue night sky. “Black Magic” in the title reinforces the healer profession but is also a play on words emphasizing the beauty of darkness.
Noah’s Ark: Genesis by Charles McGee
Drawing upon Ancient Egyptian Art and African textiles as well as prehistoric rock paintings from Europe and Australia, McGee creates an exuberant painting with collaged elements depicting biblical Noah, his family and animals boarding the ark.
Maple Red by Ed Clark
Clark was an abstract painter whose work has drawn accolades nationally and internationally. He is the first painter credited with working on a shaped canvas, an innovation that influenced contemporary art through the 50s and 60s. He is also known for his powerful brush stroke, large-scale canvases, and skillful use of color.