Judy Bowman’s work transports you into a world with such a vitality it practically sings – you can hear the grumble of the double bass, smell the food steaming in the kitchen, feel the warmth oozing from the sultry lemon and golds. Using collage as her primary medium, Bowman composes a patchwork, joyously maximalist kind of art, that invites you to listen, to watch; telling stories and sharing cultures that invite you to be part of a loving, infinitely varied family, wherever you might be from. We have the similar joy of talking to Judy Bowman about her solo exhibition, Gratiot Griot – now on view until March 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit –and all things pride, culture, legacy, and the lasting importance of Swag.
Firstly, many congratulations on your stunning new solo exhibition, Gratiot Griot. For those perhaps unfamiliar with those terms, how would you explain the title of your exhibition, and how did you arrive at it?
The title of my exhibition, Gratiot Griot, comes from the following. I was raised on the east side of Detroit. First, my family lives in a predominantly Black community known as Blackbottom. Then we moved further into the east side of Detroit to a street called Seneca, which was off Gratiot. Griot is a term from West Africa. It refers to a storyteller who maintains an oral history of its people using poetry or music. I call myself a visual griot because I tell stories of my community through my artwork.
Do you see yourself as a storyteller, in this sense, as much as a visual artist? I’d love to know more about the kinds of stories you’re sharing through your medium.
Yes, I see myself as an intertwining of both. I tell the stories through my art of the community I was raised in on the east side of Detroit. I tell stories of family relationships, coming-of-age stories, and stories of lovers. I feel it is my charge to tell the story of my community as I saw it to show that black people are not the one-dimensional image that is, more than not, portrayed in a negative manner.
When I first engaged with your work, I had a strong, immediate response – the joy, zest, and swagger that oozes from your intricately composed collages are incredibly potent. I’m thinking of a collage titled Mom on Seneca (which can be seen in your new exhibition) which you’ve described as a “cultural scene in the fabric of many Black homes and traditions,” showing a vibrant game of family cards. Is there a joy for you in presenting tradition and culture in the way that you do? Where does that joy stem from?
I often refer to my upbringing as a kind of ‘leave It to beaver’ kind of living. Nearly everyone on my block had a mother and father. The mums stayed home to tend to the home and children and the fathers went to work at the factories. We ate dinner together at a certain time every day. Everybody had to be on the front porch by the time the streetlights came on. We were expected to be always on our best behaviour, or the neighbours would report our transgressions to our parents. Mom On Seneca is a typical scene that played out in many of the homes in my community. Families gathered to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and each other. And yes, there is much joy in showing our traditions and culture. That joy comes from telling the story of my people and that is how it connects with all people. All people have special relationships and traditions. I feel that is why my work connects with the heart so much. Love is love.
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Mom In Harlem, 2019. @ Judy Bowman.Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
Your work tends to focus on abstract portraiture or full-length figures – what continues to draw you towards these varieties of human subjects?
These figures are people in my family or people I see that represent the Black man at his finest. They represent my values, dignity, pride, culture and to do it with Swag.
Would you be comfortable sharing with our readers how your personal art practice links to the values, memories and compositions of family? I understand it’s influenced your work massively.
My personal art practice is to reflect on subjects that touch my heart or make me feel happy or proud. I guess I am just a softy and try to look for the bright side of things. I select family photos that bring up these memories and these photos become the subjects of my work.
A previous exhibition of yours was titled Detroit Swag, which is a term which has a continuing presence in Gratiot Griot – could you expand on the fundamentals of Detroit Swag, and what it means for you as an artist? You have a particularly wonderful collage with the same title included in the Gratiot Griot exhibition, I noticed!
Swag is a stylish confidence that was very dominant in my family. Somehow the stylish part skipped over me. But I know it when I see it. The collage Detroit Swag is of my actual family. It came from one of my family photos. The men in this collage are my cousins and brothers. From a child to now, they fascinated me because they were and are also so dapper. They had a mixture of attitude, confidence, suaveness, and pride that I see in so many people of Detroit. The people in Detroit have that Swag.
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Judy Bowman. Mom On Seneca, 2020. @ Judy Bowman.Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
There are some exquisitely striking collages from your Detroit Swag exhibition which I feel I have to include in the conversation – Church Ladies must be my favourite; it just bursts with life. Has your approach towards your subject matter, or how you work with your materials, changed between your previous exhibitions and Gratiot Griot? Do you find yourself building a narrative in your journey as an artist, maybe?
My approach towards subjects has been to incorporate prints of my previous works in my current collages. I am also moving towards making my subjects fit into familiar city life surroundings. I want to add more to the backgrounds of my works that speaks volumes about where we come from.
 You’ve spoken before about your upbringing, and how in the 50’s and 60’s “Art was not a viable profession.” Do you think collective opinions have changed since then? How do you feel, looking back on those kinds of attitudes towards the artist's life?
YES!!!! I know a collective opinion has changed and it is exciting and amazing that young people are now making a viable living in the arts. Moving back into the art scene, I see so many opportunities young people have from being curators to gallery owners. I see a boldness and belief that art can provide a decent income and living. I think this is so wonderful that I see young people creating their own art jobs and businesses. It is very impressive.
I get the sense that the notion of ‘legacy’ is important to you and how you approach your work, would I be right in saying that? What does a successful legacy for an artist look like for you?
Yes, you would be right to say legacy is very important to me. As I have said before, I believe when we are all born, we are born with a gift and an assignment inside of us. We have a purpose, a gift, and a job to do to make the world move forward. That will be our legacy if we choose to nurture it. It is kind of like the movie, It’s A Wonderful Life. If we don’t nurture our gift or assignment, it alters our surroundings and the lives of those who are around us. A successful legacy for me is to inspire others to nurture the gift that each of us has inside of us. Mine is to inspire other artists young and old to keep going and go the distance. It will change someone’s life around you.
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Detroit Swagger, 2022. @ Judy Bowman.Courtesy the artist and Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit.
If you have a feeling for it, where would you like to take your artistic journey in the future?
When I was asked what kind of artist I want to be, without hesitation, I said I want to be a fine art museum artist. I want my family to come into an important museum and see my work on the walls and they can say, “That’s my mum or grandma.” I want my work to be studied in books and college art classes. I want to be one of the great ones like Romar Bearden or Jacob Lawrence. Yes, I aim for the fences! This is where I want my artistic journey to take me.
You studied art before you became a teacher for most of your adult life, as I understand. How does it feel to receive such glowing (and deserved) adulation for your work after returning to it in later years? Did it feel like you ever left it behind at all?
Sometimes I think about that and then I realise the time I spent as a mum and an educator was preparing me for my time now. I came back to Detroit at the right time, and I met the right people at the right time. I realised I didn’t leave it behind. My gift was waiting for me to catch up with it.
A quick one to end on – your art incorporates blues, jazz and African American music into their compositions and titles; what tracks are you listening to at the moment?
Well, earlier, I was listening to Miles Davis' Radio on Pandora. But I needed to focus on these questions, so now I am looking at Smooth Jazz Radio!
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