by Tunde Wey
There was once a young woman who learned that art was not a profession. She has since made her home in Detroit, living as an artist.
The story of Mary K. Bazzi, founder of the Detroit Wallpaper Company, tells of an opportunity to reexamine and reimagine old institutions.It used to be that the trajectory of creation started at a single idea, which then gathered a following to become a movement, and soon after was co-opted by the mainstream and institutionalized. The institution that is now “art” – with its byzantine system of galleries, curators, art schools, appraisers, collectors, auction houses, agents, critics and on and on – is now far removed from the pure act of self-expression.
Bazzi, 25, is insightful when speaking of the unintended consequences of the art establishment. She believes by legitimizing art through the usual avenues of gallery openings and exhibitions the establishment decides who gets to call themselves “artists.”
Bazzi challenges this validation. Artists, she believes, don’t need “permission to create.” Detroit Wallpaper Company, her nom de guerre, is Bazzi’s refusal to ask for permission.
Started in March of 2011, the project is an exploration of art beyond the canvas, realized through murals on urban surfaces in public spaces. Bazzi’s works are usually on city walls she refers to as “decayed.” For her, abandoned buildings offer alternative “pop-up galleries” with no curators “where nothing is for sale.”
She chose the project name as a pseudonym – a way to create art without identifying her gender — as well as a metaphor for decorating the city. Moving to the outside what is usually considered interior decoration, Bazzi’s art covers the forlornness of the city with a new layer of life.
Bazzi calls Detroit Wallpaper Company “a broad statement,” living between graffiti and murals. Around the city, she tags work that is intricate and fantastical. Bazzi’s pieces might feature brightly colored women with limbs transitioning from human likeness into a floral explosion, or mechanical-like contraptions sporting extravagant accessories.
The style and manner of Bazzi’s work is a mystery to her. She says she sees herself as “an interpreter of the universe’s language,” channeling emotions that are relevant to the moment of creation without any agenda or prejudice towards the final work.
Bazzi discovered her identity as an artist in Chicago while participating in the Flat Iron Building mural competition; it was the first time her work was shown publicly. She moved back to Detroit in 2010, around the time when the Occupy Movement was gaining traction. Working across the street from a park where demonstrations were held, Bazzi was inspired by the creative energy from the artists, photographers, musicians and activists participating in the protests.
An English major, Bazzi works as a restaurant server, spending much of her income on art supplies, which she estimates at $500 to $1,000 per mural. The support network of other local artists like Chris Buchannan and Chazz Miller of Artists Village gives her the faith to value herself as an artist, she says. This encouragement is paying off with paid gigs; Bazzi was just commissioned to paint the awning of H & S Deli, a local downtown restaurant.
Outside of Detroit, and maybe even to Detroiters facing serious challenges, the work of Detroit Wallpaper Company might appear trivial. But what if the art establishment in Detroit and the world was recast in the image of artists like Bazzi? Maybe then, what we now think of as “alternative” would become the new norm, allowing more artists and innovators to ascend from the margins to the mainstream.