Bree Gant knows Detroit well. On a recent summer day, the 27-year-old artist was an image of serenity, tucked into one of the back corners of the Detroit Institute of Art’s Kresge Court with a notebook and a bite to eat. The soothing, sun-streaked room is one of Gant’s favorite hideaways in her hometown, a familiar place where she knows the busboys by name. Gant, who attended high school in midtown Detroit and later spent a few years attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., is a multi-hyphenate artist; her work spans photography, print-making, collage, and digital collage. After graduating from Howard in 2011 and returning to a changing city, her art became her hustle.
These days, Gant holds down a job at Detroit Clothing Circle — a vintage and designer store where she’s a sales associate, photographer, curator, and everything in-between — but expends much of her creative energy on RockCity Lookbook, a lifestyle-brand-turned-publisher of which she’s a co-founder and which helps Detroit artists with brand management and community engagement. In May, Gant put together the Art Babes Exhibition, a pop-up show for emerging women artists of Detroit, for which attendees numbered in the hundreds. When I spoke to her in July, she was in the process of planning Art Babes II and working on personal projects of her own (an in-progress solo project, called “Let Them Eat Water,” will use collage and a water bottle-based installation to respond to the Flint water crisis). But throughout it all, she said, her most sacred title and difficult task is that of an artist attempting to navigate her identity as it intertwines with her city and the world beyond it.
What was your experience growing up in Detroit? What was Detroit like during your childhood?
I grew up in a nice neighborhood. There were a lot of retirees. There was only one other girl on my block and then there was me and my sister. I went to a K to 8 school. It was a public school. It was majority black, definitely. I was very much a dork. I went to the bookstore and the library every weekend.
In the ’90s and early 2000s, in the spaces I was in, it was very black or white. Whenever I would go downtown to visit my parents — they worked downtown — it was very majority white. Spaces weren’t necessarily [integrated]. It was a type of “you shouldn’t be here” feeling. Even downtown, when I knew it was majority white people, it wasn’t very populated. It was just not a lot of people period. That’s just the way it was. Southeastern Michigan is one of the most segregated areas of the country. [When] I went to, like, honors kids opportunities I realized how black my daily experience was because suddenly I was surrounded by all white people.
You moved to D.C. to go to Howard. What was Detroit like when you returned?
I came back I right on the end of – or [maybe] at the beginning of — the major shift. [Former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick] had just been sentenced. [The city] was just about to file bankruptcy. When I came back, all of the planning and intent was just coming to fruition for this whole gentrification process. I read about all the stories in the media about the art scene and all the opportunities and when I got back and I realized that it was a lot of talking. It was flat and it was white. There was a major divide [between black people and white people], in the view of the city, and in having access to resources and spaces.
One of the first things I noticed moving back was the Renaissance Center — where I used to walk to all the time after school in high school to wait on my mom or dad or whoever for a ride home — [had changed]. They started putting up signs that this isn’t a place to loiter or that you can’t sit here. I remember my dad came one day and they asked him for some I.D.; my dad’s been going to that building since forever.
Do you see the changes as good or bad?
It’s both. It’s exciting to see new things happening in this city. [But] there’s very much so a disconnect between the people who have the resources and what they’re investing them in and what the majority of the city does and is interested in and the resources and opportunities they have. We just need more connection with the city that’s already here. Stop calling it a “blank canvas” because it is not a blank canvas. There are people who have been here. To be able to continue that narrative doesn’t mean Detroit has to be the same thing it always was; it just means that we have to be conscious that we’re continuing a narrative and not think we’re paving over things with concrete and starting something new.
“Stop calling it a ‘blank canvas’ because it is not a blank canvas. There are people who have been here.”
How does your art fit into that?
I do go into my “I’m not an activist” moments because I am very much into creating art and I don’t like having that tied to certain social agendas. I just really want to create the visions and the narratives I see. A lot of times that does come from my experiences and struggles as a queer black woman, but it doesn’t always. I feel like it’s very necessary to appreciate and establish yourself around your individual specificities. Being who you are and being aware of the collective is powerful — and it’s hard to balance both. Art is the way I explore and navigate that balance.
How does your art combat the so-called “urban decay” of Detroit?
I don’t know that it is. I know that my work speaks to being able to understand both context and narrative. I’m really big on examining not just a subject but what that subject means inside and outside of its context. I don’t consider it an intention in my work to fight previous stereotypes, to fight existing narratives. [My work is] a statement of, I am here and in this narrative. This may not be what you thought you were looking for, but it is here and it is valid and it is necessary. All those narratives to fight urban decay or to make the city “beautiful” again, it’s another halting of stories behind it. The city was beautiful even in its decay. Build on it; it’s not something to be afraid of.
Among the plethora of scandals that the region has faced in its financial crisis, the Flint water crisis is now one of the most infamous. You’re working on a project dedicated to it called “Let Them Eat Water.” What was your reaction when the Flint water story first broke?
I thought about Kwame and how he’s going to jail for 28 years [for a public corruption charge]. And [Michigan Governor Rick Snyder] can poison an entire city and is still governor. That’s still my main thought. It’s like, So we’re just gonna pretend like he didn’t poison an entire city? It doesn’t make any sense at all. I got really angry and folded in on myself and that’s where the project came from. People we’re like, “I’m going to help and send water bottles.” But, I mean, have you taken a water bottle shower before? Have you taken one for, what, almost a year now? That’s not a solution. We can’t act like that’s really going to help when Snyder is still in office and the pipelines haven’t been handled. It ended up being another social media trend. It came and it went. And critiquing all of these responses, I was like, Where can I help? What needs to be done here? How can we create change?
“I thought about [former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick] and how he’s going to jail for 28 years [for a public corruption charge]. And [Michigan Governor Rick Snyder] can poison an entire city and is still governor.”
So that’s what the project focuses on?
“Let Them Eat Water” is more of a question of how we react to these things generally. It’s about what people said when they sent water [to Flint]. “We have water. Here, let’s send it to them.” “Let them eat cake, I have cake, send them cake.” It’s like, well, we’re not even putting bandaids on things anymore. It’s like, “Send the maid to send them a basket of chocolate because they’re starving.” It made me realize how ridiculously we respond to crisis and communities in crisis.
What does visibility and representation mean? What does that mean now in 2016 when everyone has a Twitter and everyone has an Instagram and there’s two or three black characters on every show now instead of just one. What does it mean? And even going past the individually specificity part, you know having individual narratives and more diverse characters is awesome. But who’s still controlling these stories? Visibility isn’t just about being on the cover of magazines. Visibility is about owning it and the company that publishes it.
What’s your future, in terms of art in Detroit?
I decided I want to be here to really build a strong community with people who are committed both to the city and the work. I’m big on high quality art that’s accessible to experience. I want a gallery in the Detroit Institute of Arts, mostly as a collector because that’s big for me — collecting young, black artists’ work and archiving it. I also really want to shape the gallery setting. In New York, there’s a lot of galleries on one block, and we’re excited to have 15 in Detroit. And that’s a start and we’re moving. I really want to change the way we experience [galleries]. What are the new ways we can exhibit, sell, and experience art? How else can we exhibit it besides giving it this sterile, falsely objective environment of the white walls and the hardwood floors?
You definitely see Detroit being a part of your story. Do you see other places being a part of it, too?
Hell yeah. I loved D.C. But when I came back to Detroit, I was like, But we got some juice. And that’s when I realized that some cities got it, other cities don’t. And I want to find more of those cities. One thing I’m trying to do is connect the underground scene in different cities so we don’t have to navigate this underground narrative anymore. We can just have our own network and connection of young black artists in Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis, New Orleans. Exploring the diaspora in different spaces has been the most humbling and amazing experience.