Objects in Circulation: In Conversation with Halima Afi Cassells


Halima Afi Cassells is an award-winning interdisciplinary community-engaged artist, mom of three, avid gardener, with deep roots in Waawiiyaataanong/Detroit, MI. She credits gardening as inspiring her move away from painting to a practice where she aspires to use materials and processes that lead to the thriving of all (human and non-human) communities.

Halima continues to explore relationship-building, and notions of freedom/work, value/disposability in a participatory context through projects like the Free Market of Detroit (2015 Knight Arts awardee). 

As an advocate for all artists and cultural practitioners, she has spearheaded many community processes that uplift cultural capital from often-exploited communities. She serves as a member of the National Conference of Artists, Founding Board member of Oakland Avenue Artists Coalition, Co-Director of Poetic Societies, an advisor to the Allied Media Conference and Detroit Narrative Agency, and has consulted on the creation of a Cultural Community Benefits Principles Toolkit with ArtChange Us.

If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to begin by having you walk me through the timeline of your practice as an artist— a lot of work seems social-practice based, and I know prior you had been doing work as a muralist— could you talk about that trajectory?

I think like everyone I was born an artist, my parents were really creative and encouraging so it was really nice to not be penalized for drawing all over the entire hallway. Or my dad was redoing the bathroom caulk, and I took the caulking gun and did a whole piece on the side of the bookshelf. Me and my sister were definitely encouraged, and I have a lot of artists in my family. I went to Nataki Talibah Schoolhouse of Detroit for elementary and middle school, and they always had a bunch of artists coming through, and one of the co-founders was George N’Namdi who runs N’Namdi Gallery, so we were always meeting artists and going to openings and having sparkling grape juice and being fancy in second grade. I really do appreciate that and being able to be in community and see people, and know people. My parents were undercover artists, my dad worked for the city, he was a city planner, but every weekend he’s wood working in the garage and making furniture, or making wine one year. My mom is the same way, she’s a teacher so she really pushed us to be writing, thinking, questioning, and of course the school we went to was a part of the African Center of Schools that are here in Detroit, so everything had a lot of critical thinking and context that was around it. 

Then I went to Cass, which was great, and I had amazing teachers and amazing people that are now amazing artists, and I’m so happy to see so many people’s trajectory upwards and pulling other people up, and watching people being very intentional about supporting other Detroit artists. There were fabulous teachers, and fabulous department heads— Shirley Woodson, Marian Stephens, who was the art department head when I went there, and she’s also my cousin.

So in high school are you painting at that time?

In high school I did arts & sciences curriculum, it was an honors curriculum that allowed for a lot of electives. I did drawing, painting, I really enjoyed experimenting, and making prints, playing with things.

Then I went on to Howard. My mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother were teachers so I think it was like, “that’s great we love you, and also what other kind of teacher do you want to be?” I did end up getting a teaching degree and doing the student teaching, and I thought my mom was so cool when she became a teacher. But I was sad, from just the energy and the environment, the way that the system is set up. I could tell I wouldn’t be a happy person. I love children, but the situation was not for me. So then I started doing enrichment programs—arts after school, sometimes we did violence prevention in school where we’d take a group of young people and think about this as a play or skit, mixing up drama, games, visual art, finding out what they’re into and then creating something together—and I was like, “oh I really like this”.

That’s what started the mural-making. I was in New York City, learning the city, and so this program hit a lot of checkboxes cause you basically bid on what schools you want to go to, you have to do a little research to figure out where the school is and how to get there, “can I do all my paperwork on the train ride?” It was so perfect to work for three hours a day with people who want to be there. A lot of the art education system is just memory, and what can you regurgitate and can you obey? Can you conform? Will you internalize these things that we are telling you to memorize without questioning them? And then you come to find out that it’s based on this Prussian model from centuries back to create factory workers.

The first mural I made was with my dear friend Chon Cousins who is an artist in Brooklyn. We painted a mural of Marcus Garvey on Marcus Garvey Blvd. with my eldest daughter (who was 6 months old at the time) watching us from her carseat as my inspiration. I wanted her to have something of meaning and beauty that we created to be a part of our daily path to the train. After this experience, I started working as a teaching artist doing mural-making and other arts enrichment programming with young people in NYC public schools.

Then a bunch of personal stuff happened and I was like, “oh right, I’m in a situation I don’t want to be in that doesn’t feel safe, what are my options?” I ended up pretty much living with a friend for a few months after packing what I could pack and leaving with my eldest. That opened me up to so much—I’ve always had a roommate from college or something like that —but just family living together, so living with someone who had three daughters, and then me and my daughter, and we both had cats, and we both were in this one and a half bedroom walkup in Brooklyn, and it was amazing. It was just people taking different responsibilities, figuring stuff out, and then got me really thinking about how we think about value, and success, and need, and want, and so at that point I was like, “ok I’m starting from zero.” It became like, “ok I can paint a mural for this store in our neighborhood for a meal a week for the next year or two,” which is kind of casual but just cause I know this person, and it made me think that all of these can be creative things, but money transactions are actually sucking our creativity away from us because its like, “I’ll just buy it.” That’s the first thought instead of, “I can make it,”, “I can ask somebody,”, “I can fix it,”, “I can do it another way.” The reason a lot of this is possible is because slavery still exists, and I knew that as a child, I knew about sweatshops, so how do we shift these things or at least how do I not participate as much as possible. I would much rather spend money or energy with people who I love who are doing things of their own free will, like I am, and not try to think about the person becoming their role. We’re all multi-faceted, we all have a bunch of knowledge, we all have a bunch of things we love, how do we live into that space with our creativity and then celebrate it. Money is like voting. 

That’s one of the features of your work I’m most interested in, your attention to how economics affects the meaning of objects— how the systems and channels of transactions reshape meaning and change how we see and understand objects. I’m thinking specifically about works of yours like “Free Market of Detroit” and the “Traveling Indigo Vat”, how did you come to make that kind of work?

I think I remember things because they are important at a moment, I remember them because they became important in that moment. One of my foundational experiences was as a child going to the Heidelberg Project, getting on the half-submerged Rosa Parks bus and just being like, “woah, what? This is art?” And then thinking, “why is this art?” And fast forward thirty years and I’m still having the same question, what makes something art? Is it how I am perceiving it? Is it another human’s intention? Is it the balance between the two? Is it somebody else’s place to call it art? 

And then also diving in the other direction of need—you can see the same bike with different people riding it, so like if its a hipster and they’ve got a crate it’s like, “oh that’s so innovative”, but if you see a guy who is maybe just from Detroit and has been here all his life, and has the same crate it might be derided. The perceptions are hilarious, the way they play out in terms of monetary value is not hilarious, but the same small thing can be read in such different ways. We grew up going to museums, but then you also have this critical thought of like, “how did this get here? Why would someone give a sacred object to someone else who doesn’t understand it?” What is the purpose that it’s serving? So there’s a bunch of those conversations, and then honestly just for me—at the moment I got the biggest commission for painting I had really gotten into gardening, and I couldn’t justify to myself putting plastics in the water, and my daughter had gotten into the paint and was smearing it everywhere and I was like, “No! This is the opposite of what I want.” But I had it in the house so it must be ok right? But everything is a negotiation, a compromise, I still own bleach and use it to clean, and I’m ok with that. But I don’t have to paint and attach my livelihood to something I don’t feel 100 about. So I moved to more drawing and collage, and working with other people in workshops, and I started making indigo to try to make our own jeans. You realize how much work these processes are— getting the raw material, weaving it— there are so many processes. I think if we just getting into making things, asking questions, taking apart, it’s like “how in the world is this $2.99? It’s impossible.”

“Traveling Indigo Vat” Halima Afi Cassells

Could you tell me about how the idea for the Free Market of Detroit came to you, and just about the project itself and what you’ve learned through it?

 So there is a large age difference between my daughters and the first free market was in a backyard barbecue where I invited family and friends to bring a few items gently used kids stuff and clothes that were specific to my daughters size at the time. It was astounding that among maybe 10 people we had 13 bags of stuff and other folks found things that they also want to take home. So that was kind of the beginning and after a few of these pop-up swaps we started adding in elements like having a station for tailoring and alterations. Then my friend Vanessa Had an idea to create a holiday swapping bazaar which would be set up like a giant store with displays and a gift wrapping station and a fashion show andhaving a station for making something, Having a spot for photos and mirrors so people could try things on, a Now we usually combine these elements and aim to always have a DJ and dance floor and open mic time.

What I’ve learned is that people are incredibly generous and creative. I was seeing how objects gain more value because of their history in community and the stories that are attached to them. It’s also been fun to have a community that regularly practices swapping and so some items will sometimes stay in circulation and you’ll see the same chunky giant show bracelet pop up years it different swaps and different folks get to have their turn and have fun with it.

I’d also love to know more about the history behind your work, “The Traveling Indigo Vat”.

So about eight years ago my eldest daughter got into fashion design and at some point we said we wanted to make a pair of jeans and we were like OK how far back in the process are we going to go in making these jeans? And we came upon the magical process of ancient and traditional indigo dying and since then I have been working to keep an indigo vat going. I work with to die things for personal as well as art-making purposes. the process of it is fascinating to me. how our ancestors around the world knew how to create a double fermentation process to magnetically hold the oxidized indigo in between micro fibers to get this color blue. At one point it was the most valued commodity being traded in the ancient world and I thought it was kind of ironic as to how common place now in bluejeans And how available it is. I started traveling with a small vat and doing pop up dying workshops with folks near different bodies of water across the nation as an anti-commercial venture.


You can follow Halima’s work on her instagram: @halima_afi

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