DIA exhibit showcases work of Detroit artist Tiff Massey

The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) takes a bold new step with a special exhibition by native Detroiter Tiff Massey. The spectacular “Tiff Massey: 7 Mile + Livernois,” opening Sunday, is the most ambitious exhibition the museum has ever done for a Detroit artist, and at 42, Massey is also the youngest artist ever to have a solo show at the DIA.

“It’s also the first time in many years that the DIA has commissioned an artist to create work for an exhibition specifically in dialogue with our space and collection,” said Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Katie Pfohl. “There are 11 works in the show; four of them are brand new commissions that Tiff made for this exhibition, and two of them are responses to works by Donald Judd and Louise Nevelson, artists that Tiff has been seeing at the DIA since she was a kid and her mom used to bring her to the museum.”

Massey creates installations, jewelry, public art and wearable sculptures inspired by adornment that shape a sense of identity and belonging. The first Black woman to graduate from Cranbrook Academy of Art with a degree in metalsmithing, Massey scales up her jewelry to the size of architecture, forming sculptures that can take up entire galleries, celebrating Detroit’s evolving neighborhoods and the history of West African and Black American culture and style.

“The biggest piece that you see is a sculpture installation called ‘Whatupdoe,’ this amazing piece made from steel architectural beams, the kind used to build skyscrapers, configured into this incredible necklace. It’s about 13,000 pounds of stainless steel that the artist worked with a fabricator to weld into this kind of giant necklace form. A lot of her work explores the idea of adornment as a metaphor for community. And in this case, the work is really about thinking about jewelry as a metaphor for other kinds of connection.

Explainer: Are you wondering what the term ‘Whatupdoe’ means? It’s distinctly Detroit.

“The exhibition is titled ‘7 Mile + Livernois,’ after the neighborhood she grew up in, as well as the center of the city’s Black business and fashion district. A lot of the work is about this idea of jewelry as a metaphor for other kinds of connection, this idea of links on a chain being this really powerful metaphor for new kinds of connection between neighborhoods, between people and across communities.”

DIA board member Marsha Battle Philpot, also known as Marsha Music, expanded upon the importance of the title.

“7 Mile and Livernois represents the push of Black Detroit after the bounds of segregation were broken,” she said, “and we were able to move more freely into residential areas in this city. It is a profound junction.”

Massey said discussions of the exhibition began in late 2022.

“When they originally approached me to see if I would be interested in doing an exhibition here at the museum, I’m like, ‘Hell yeah!’” she said. “It was to respond to works in their permanent collection, so I went through some options that they chose just based on things that would be great for conversation in my work, and I chose Donald Judd. (Judd’s “Stack”) is a piece that I remember when I was a kid, it was installed on the contemporary walls. I wanted to climb it. So I was like, ‘Let’s go, I’m going to make my own ‘Stack.’

“I feel like this is kind of an art battle, responding back to someone else’s work. It’s an interesting concept. Louise Nevelson is the other artist that I chose to respond to, and how she used form and the color black.”

“Tiff Massey: 7 Mile + Livernois” will be on view for a full year, through May 11, 2025, spanning four galleries in the museum’s contemporary wing.

“There are those,” said Philpot, “who look at the early generations of this country from the turn of the century, the industrial era, as the great people of Detroit. And then, later on, in the post-World War II era, as those who reconfigured the city after the challenges that were experienced here.

“But there is yet another generation that has manifested itself after we baby boomers. And they are often disparaged and decried; they are often treated with contempt. The young men and women that inhabited this city when it was at the pinnacle of its devastation — and yet they carried on by creating their music, their art and in the case of Tiff, creating an entire articulation of the grandeur, the sheer magnificence of Detroit itself.”

Contact Free Press arts and culture reporter Duante Beddingfield at dbeddingfield@freepress.com.

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