Akeem Smith explores memory, Black diaspora, and Kingston’s dancehall scene in his Detroit exhibitions

From Dancehalls to Detroit

Akeem Smith explores memory, Black diaspora, and Kingston’s dancehall scene in his Detroit exhibitions

Akeem Smith’s Soursop show inside Detroit’s Woods Cathedral. (Dario Lasagni)

Brooklyn-born multimedia artist and fashion designer Akeem Smith, who has spent much of his life moving between New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood and his parents’ hometown of Kingston, Jamaica, has launched his first major solo exhibition in Detroit. The product of a collaboration between the curatorial office New Canons and the experimental arts program Red Bull Arts, No Gyal Can Test successfully debuted in New York before moving to the Motor City in April, where it is joined by Soursop, a second concurrent exhibition of Smith’s videography and full-scale architectural installations at the historic Woods Cathedral.

For both shows, Smith brought together a vast and deeply personal assemblage of artifacts and sounds that draw on the years he spent in the dancehalls of Kingston’s Waterhouse District as a child. Photographs and videos bestowed on the artist by relatives and friends, particularly those from his aunt’s six-woman dancehall fashion collective, form the basis of No Gyal Can Test. They are augmented by abandoned and worn ephemera that speak to the richness of the dancehalls, an energy that is carried forth in the salvaged construction materials and amalgamated architectural spaces of Soursop.

In keeping with his career-long engagement across mediums and art forms, Smith worked with sculptor Jessie Reaves, fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner, and musical artists Total Freedom, Physical Therapy, and Alex Somers to concoct various visual and audio elements featured in the gallery at Red Bull Arts. 

Akeem Smith’s Soursop show at the Woods Cathedral in Detroit. (Photo by Akeem Smith)

In many ways, this hybridity reflects Smith’s upbringing between worlds, where place-rootedness was built on constantly shifting ground and the ability to transcend boundaries. Curators characterized No Gyal Can Test as “Part poem, part anthropological homage…[forming] a layered exploration of spectral coloniality, diaspora, and the voyeurism that results from transporting these artefacts across cultural, economic, and temporal divides.”

While direct and explicit cultural ties between Detroit, Kingston, and Smith’s own lived experience may not be so plainly evident, Smith acknowledged that the two cities share similar social significance within the global Black diaspora: “I’m excited to see how the exhibition’s themes of community, site-specificity, and transformation through music and style reverberate in a city shaped by such deep-rooted, parallel histories of economic disenfranchisement and subcultural abundance.”

These threads are nowhere more apparent than in the cavernous halls of Woods Cathedral, a recently revived arts hub where a progressive Black congregation once gathered in Detroit’s heyday. The dilapidated structures of Soursop, gathered and amalgamated from the streets of Kingston’s warehouse district by Smith himself, echo the weathered walls of the atrial space that houses them. The hope, according to the artist and curators, is that the creative new siting of Smith’s intimate work will illuminate “a connective tissue that speaks to the collective Black experience that continues to evolve through the 21st century.”

No Gyal Can Test is currently on display through July 30. Soursop is on view via appointment through July 31.