Artist and designer Akeem Smith recalls his familial history to tell the tale of dancehall.
Opening in April at Red Bull Arts Detroit, No Gyal Can Test is the vision of artist and designer Akeem Smith, who uses photography, video and installations to create an immersive look into the essence of Kingston, Jamaica’s dancehall scene and preserving it for posterity. Akeem offers a look at dancehall from the 1980s to the early 2000s through cultural artifacts, including personal photos and videos from family members and icons within the dancehall community.
Smith’s own ties to dancehall are familial bonds, growing up inspired by the OUCH Crew, a six-woman artist collective that designed clothes for dancehall artists, led by Smith’s aunt. The crew is known for their one-off designs that helped to define dancehall aesthetics – and the exhibition is a personal journey through their perspectives.
Reflecting on his upbringing between New York and Jamaica, Smith explores the diaspora across location and time. The exhibition is as archeological as it is artistic, with sculptural installations salvaged from structures in Kingston that simulate the environments from which they come. The items vary from junkyard discards to old clothes and curtains.
“There was something in me that felt that they were important,” Smith says. “I was thinking they’re never going to make things like this again, and I really wanted to preserve this moment and the things that remind me of this time. With Black history, there’s not a lot of first-person narratives.”
For Smith, it’s important not just that these stories are told but that they are told by the people who lived it, with an intentional spotlight on female perspectives that may otherwise go overlooked. The show originally opened last year at Red Bull Arts New York to great critical acclaim. The Detroit presentation of the exhibition will feature new sculptures and site-specific video and audio installations, including “Veranda,” a tower of stacked speakers covered in ornate wrought iron.
As part of the Detroit programming, the exhibition will also feature several engaging conversations including Dancehall Diaries, featuring dancehall icons highlighted in the exhibition: Sandra Lee, Paula Ouch, Debbie Ouch and the original Dancehall Queen Carlene. They will focus on their legacy and how dancehall has changed. Another conversation, Slack Archives, will be a roundtable discussion on the themes on the exhibition featuring Smith and the women featured in the exhibition, focusing on visibility and historical record.
April 16 – July 30