Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust

Written by Conor Edwards — Photography by Alex Hoxie


What strikes you first is intricacy of the whole thing. It’s hard to fathom the dedication it required, and even more difficult to grasp it’s meaning. It seems incomprehensible. But after spending just a few moments with Olayami Dabls, the artist behind the sprawling public installation “Iron Teaching Rocks How to Rust” it all manages to make complete sense.


Each element seems to have been meticulously placed; yet the end result has an organic presence. While the ambiguity of the piece may open up more questions than offer answers, the artist is available and willing to engage in discussion around the piece. You can often find Dabls nearby, ready to explain, in considered detail, the idea behind each aspect of his creation. The only thing more captivating than the work itself is the meaning behind it, a layered exploration of sociopolitical tensions and African-American history. In the multimedia installation, iron serves as a metaphor for European society and its rampant influence on world cultures. 


Dabls spends most of his days next door, manning the counter at another one of his equally impressive creations: the MBAD African Bead Museum. It sits adjacent to the vacant lot where he spent 15 years creating the three installations that encompass the area. Dabls’s museum is home to a seemingly unending assortment of African cultural artifacts, some of which date back hundreds of years. 


In a climate where the merits (and aesthetics) of public art in Detroit are widely debated, Dabls’s work rarely enters the conversation, despite it being one of the largest public art installations in the city. It stands unquestioned — a true testament to one man’s passion and dedication that will hopefully live on as a reminder of the potential that exists in each vacant lot dotting our city’s landscape.  

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