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Bead griot competes to expand museum into Detroit community space

Olayami Dabls at the MBAD African Bead Museum in Detroit PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTO

Olayami Dabls at the MBAD African Bead Museum in Detroit PHREDDY WISCHUSEN PHOTO

By Phreddy Wischusen
The Michigan Citizen 

“No other people on the planet use as many beads as in Africa. Millions of beads were found in Africa, and the beads became so entwined in the culture, they created a different language,” says Olayami Dabls, founder of the MBAD African Bead Museum on Detroit’s west side. 

Beads were used for initiation rites, to denote status in the community, Dabls continues, “and the moment the female became pregnant, beads were placed around her waist to protect her and the unborn child, and to guarantee the child would be born healthy.” As soon as a child was born, beads were placed around the child’s waist for protection and as an indicator of health.  “You should be constantly adding beads because the child was growing,” Dabls says. Not needing to add beads was a sign something was wrong. 

At ages 14 or 15, in many traditional African cultures, a child would undertake a series of initiation rites to secure their place as a man or woman in the community.  The beads they received upon completion of those rites would indicate to other community members they were now adults — privy to pertinent information, participants in decision making, and so on. Beads could also denote marital status and the number of children the wearer had. “Adornment was the furthest thing from the purpose,” Dabls says. “(The beads) communicated specific information dealing with their particular culture.” 

There are no placards next to the rainbow rows of jars stretching along the museum walls that describe the history of each bead; there is no museum publication. 

Dabls is both collector and curator — the librarian, archivist and the educator, transmitting the ethnographic histories that survive with the beads.

He points at a strand of white dotted beads. “The eye bead could protect you from things we have problems with today — someone down the street talking about you. In the past, your reputation was far more important than you can imagine today, because what you say was paramount, therefore you needed some kind of protection from people saying things that were not true about you behind your back.  That’s when these eye beads became important.” 

Next, there are yellow beads young ladies wore after initiation, amber beads revered for their healing properties, silver beads to designate purity, since it came directly out of the earth. 

Agate, a wavy-banded stone, was used to denote someone who was an elder.  An elder, he says, is person literally preparing to become an ancestor who can then consult with people left behind. For those cultures, Dabls says, “the greatest status on the planet was to become an elder, because you knew that person had a wealth information…” Proverbially speaking, Dabls says, “When an elder dies, a library is gone.” 

The stories and more enshrined in the beads, Dabls says, has particular relevance to Detroiters. “The beads are very important to African people in this town because it points to a philosophy a way of doing things that is locked in without any interference by incoming people.” Cultural knowledge was lost when European languages and philosophies were imposed upon Africans, Dabls says, but the beads retain their own uncorrupted stories.



Each day, Dabls passes these stories along to Detroiters in the Diaspora seeking to know more about their origins as a people. Outside on a stage, drummer Efe Bes is responding to the summer afternoon with a tapestry of polyrhythms. Children are playing in the middle of Dabls’ large sculptural installation. Martial artist and entheogen teacher Kilindi Iyi is working on a new piece of art.

A young man walks into the museum, and tells Dabls he grew up in the neighborhood, but never stopped in. I recently discovered who I am, where I come from, he tells Dabls. “I wanted to come in and meet you,” he says, and say thanks for what you are doing for our people. He asks Dabls is he can come and volunteer sometime.

During Michigan’s long winters, a lot of this activity ceases for lack of space in the small museum.

Now an annual arts contest could give the Bead Museum a chance to expand. The Knight Arts Challenge People’s Choice Awards will give 20,000 to the one of five finalists who gets the most votes.

If the MBAD wins, Dabls will be able to put a new roof on building adjoining the Bead Museum, which Dabls also owns.  With the installation of the roof, there will be a viable community gathering space open to the public year round.

“One of the reasons why we are still here is we were able to shift … what we wanted to what the people felt they needed. And they needed a place to socialize to come relax, an escape place.”

People can vote for the MBAD African Bead Museum by texting DETROIT2 to 747.444.3548.

Regardless of whether the museum, which opened in 1994, wins the contest, Dabls will eventually make sure the additional space is available to the community, by any means necessary.



“We don’t need a modern day interpretation of a museum,” Dabls says. “We’re grassroots. This can’t be stopped by no one entity. We passed those obstacles a long time ago.”

Learn more about the museum at

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