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In the nine years that Maisha Hughes has pursued her artistic endeavors full time, she's been laughed out of galleries, starved herself to pay for art school, and nearly let criticism ruin her dreams. She's seen enough rejection and condescending attitudes within the Detroit artistic community to last a lifetime. Hence, the 28-year-old painter is tired of gallery politics, greedy curators and having doors slammed in her face. But she hasn't tired of painting.
That's obvious in her work, which portrays a sense of love and freedom featuring beautiful images of nude women. She jokes that she doesn't paint anything except nudes and so they've become her niche. Her colors are typically bold and vibrant at times painting bright yellow Afro wigs atop blue-black women with purple auras and red outlines all of which accentuate the female form. There's no shortage of sexual tension in the oil paintings, but Hughes is aware of her boundaries; she can tease viewers with tantalizing art that isn't purposely erotic. It's raw emotion set to canvas. Her brush strokes sing.
As a determined young artist, Hughes isn't looking for a handout, but rather a hand-up evidence that solidarity exists in Detroit's art scene. Hughes, who goes by "Moe," has made a name for herself among collectors of black art. Most of her money comes from private commissions.
"Gallery owners who already have an established clientele don't want to deal with new artists a lot of times," Hughes says. "They see me as young, or don't think I charge enough for my paintings to make it worth their while. I think gallery owners and curators need to be aware that the whole 'pay it forward' concept should be a reality."
The "pay it forward" idea ties in with Hughes' hand-up concept: One good turn begets another down the line. And Hughes doesn't overcharge for her work because she "makes art for the community." She subscribes to the principles of the Black Arts Movement, which basically says if art isn't for the people and by the people, then you've pretty much wasted your time. It's this kind of integrity, perhaps, that has kept Hughes on the fringes of the Motor City art scene.
Hughes, who's from Detroit's east side, likens herself to a rose that has popped up through concrete. She wants people to look at her work "and know that you can come from wherever and still shine."
To support similar artists, Hughes along with single-monikered classmates MURR, Zee and others from Cass Technical High School and CCS formed the Dopest Ethiopians, a collective of talented local artists of color. The title is from a Pharcyde song and reflects the group's hip-hop sensibilities. DE accepts artists who work in the fine arts photography, painting and theater as well as fashion design, installation art, silk-screening, music and writing. The group's common thread is they've all had troubling experiences as artists, both in school and in Detroit. Its goal is to help spawn a movement of young artists willing to reclaim their communities. DE recently painted a mural over a racist monument from Detroit's Jim Crow past, the Birwood Wall, an often-forgotten dividing line that was built to separate blacks from whites in the 1950s.
Hughes has big expectations for the DE and her role within it. She considers the three-year-old collective a family. It's the first support network she's ever been a part of.
To understand Hughes' work is to understand her personal obstacles, and how she stumbled out of art school.
Hughes attended Burton International School in the Cass Corridor, just down the street from Cass Tech, where she eventually graduated in 1995. Although the art programs were not spectacular at either school, Hughes benefited from the multi-cultural atmospheres and a few nonconformist teachers who encouraged her. At Cass Tech, Hughes took extension classes at the College for Creative Studies and Wayne State University to fuel her goal of becoming a fulltime artist. She could smell success and worked around the clock. Then tragedy slammed the brakes on her career.
By the time Hughes graduated and headed to Ohio's Columbus College of Art and Design, her artistic motivation was eaten alive by personal problems. Her finances diminished, her financial aid fell through, and she was forced to return to Detroit in 1996 after a year of "formal training." That was the last time Hughes set foot in a classroom.
Then she lost her grandfather, with whom she was very close, and suffered a painful break-up with her boyfriend.
Using art as therapy, Hughes began painting nude women of color as inspiration. She regained her confidence. (Some of her work reflects women with broken hearts, and others are more abstract with traces of surrealism.)
And for the last week and a half, Hughes has been overwhelmed with joy, so much that she's a ball of energy for this interview. Her smile is wide. She bounces from one side of the room to the other. She's about to have her first solo art show at the Artists Village in Detroit and she wants everything to be just right.
"I just try to stay humble, and rooted in helping my people," Hughes says, grinning. "If my art can help children and the community, then that's what 'paying it forward' is all about."
Bless The Spot opens 8 p.m. on Friday, May 19, at the Artists Village, 17340 Lahser Rd., Detroit; 313-875-5362. Music by Atlanta's Digital DJs. The show runs through June 7.
Jonathan Cunningham is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.