By Nichole M. Christian for detroit contemporary, Detroit.
In Black culture, call-and-response is sacred.
From the church to the dance floor, the tradition is an open invitation to expression, to chorus, sometimes to movement spark too.
In her new solo exhibition, “Medicine in the Mirror,’’ Sabrina Nelson takes that tradition into Detroit’s literal house of art — detroit contemporary is housed in an historic 1889 Queen Anne Victorian — where she in turn asks lovers of art, life, culture and the city to join her. The questions on Nelson’s mind, her call to the community: “What is medicine; who is medicine? How might we heal if we looked in the mirror?”
Through a fusion of installations, color and graphite pencil drawings, acrylic paintings, even touches of embroidery (a first arts love) Nelson proudly puts forth what has become her chosen answer: “Art is medicine!”
Nelson is not an artist in search of a clever new concept or schtick. That choice might be easier than the one she is revealing here and in much of her recent award-winning work, essentially showing herself as a woman openly reckoning with some of life’s largest and most existential questions. This is work born of the pandemic and forged by fierce discipline (she’s in her studio daily), and sudden need for personal healing.
“I was trying to get through my father’s death and the fact that I was never going to see him again,’’ she explained during an exhibition preview. Her father, Thomas, whom she met for the first time at age 15, died in April of 2020 during the first round of COVID-19’s rampage.
The grief came double. Hours before her father died, she ended a relationship with a longtime partner who disclosed that he didn’t share her alarm about COVID. “I had to deal with the whole concept of letting go, of believing in concepts like forever and works like ‘perfect.’ I had to become my own patient, treating myself with grace, patience, really decadent foods, and with my superpower, art. I couldn’t sit and wait for someone to come rescue me or heal me.’’
By choosing to share her struggle rather than suffering silently, Nelson, a self-defined artivist (artist meets activist), made what she calls another nourishing discovery. “We are all fighting to stay alive, we’re all thriving through something: the pandemic of heartbreak, the pandemic of economic loss, the pandemic of racial pandemonium, pandemic of wondering, do I have COVID, will I get it? How do I keep myself safe and whole through all of this mess?”
Nelson’s intense inquiry coincides with a new burst of recognition and accolades for her work. In 2021, she earned a Kresge Arts Fellowship and in 2022 Nelson was selected to receive the Women’s Caucus for the Arts Lifetime Achievement Award, a national honor in salute of a career spanning more than 35 year. “From grief to a constant state of gratitude,’’ Nelson says. “I’m just doing what I love.’’
For the exhibition, Nelson covers the walls with literal and figurative sources of reflection, including an almost lifelike watercolor, pencil and ink homage to Detroit culture maven, and bookstore owner Janet Webster-Jones, aka just Janet.
The portrait captures Janet, and the spirit of her store Source Booksellers, so vividly that the viewer questions whether they’ve somehow been transported into the scene to savor the moment with her. And Janet is not alone. Nelson surrounds her with covers from books written by notable local authors and social personal heroes, people like the poet Aneb Kgositsile , the late activist Grace Lee Boggs, her daughter-in-law, the writer and filmmaker, Danielle Eliska Lyle, and Nelson’s son, the artist Mario Moore.
“If you’ve been to Source, you know Janet’s store is much more than a bookstore. It’s a meeting place for deep thinkers, medical doctors and metaphysical doctors because of Janet. She’s sort of like the source if you will, constantly offering medicine.’’
Other familiar Detroit faces and some less known join Janet as mirrors of medicine. Beside her is a watercolor and pencil portrait titled, “Dr. Eric W. Ayers is DMC Medicine.’’ “He’s from Detroit, from Cass Tech, went to medical school here. I wanted to talk a little about doctors who choose to be doctors in the communities they come from because they’re doing medicine a little differently.’’
Painter Sydney G. James, and others, say Nelson’s latest body of work, which she regularly shares previews of via Instagram, exemplifies why she’s a constant study. “It’s layers to Sabrina’s creations, from her children to her mentorship, to her discipline; way beyond the surface,’’ James says. “She’s just a whole-ass piece of art from head-to-toe, someone who is constantly creating. She’s 50 something now with three children; she was a teen mother. It’s a lot up in that brain, a lot in that spirit, in that soul. You can feel all of her in her work.’’
Indeed, the exhibition is filled with many of the actual elements that Nelson sees as potions and prescriptions of perseverance and healing. One installation features mirrors, allusions to the power of gardening and a collection of empty pill bottles; another pulls health, wellness, food and herbal healing books straight from her home shelves. In another gallery parlor, a desk, a chair, and a rice paper journal offer viewers their chance to respond to Nelson’s grounding questions: “Who is medicine?” and “What is medicine?” (The show features a special surprise behind a set of closed doors. It’s worthwhile suspense.)
To walk through the exhibition with Nelson is a brief yet deep journey into personal joy and exquisite vulnerability. Yes, dear viewer, Nelson is drawing and painting and reaching for you even as she creates prescriptions and pathways that unapologetically aimed first at healing and satisfying her soul.
“I think we all have to decide how we can heal ourselves. What do we hold within ourselves? Nelson says as she fingers the contents of an installation of painted pills. “If I’m not making art, I’m not well. The more work I make the more joy I have and, if I can be a lesson or medicine for somebody in the process, I’m gonna share it. It’s not about the outcome anymore; it’s about the fun and the love while I’m on the adventure.’’
Artist reception at detroit contemporary on March 12, 2022 from 6pm to 10pm. RSVP.