TWMIG: The Mural Experience, on the corner of West Forest and Cass Avenues in Detroit, was designed and painted by Ijania Cortez with input from Detroit youth. Photograph by Natalie Condon.
Malika Pryor is a curator and storyteller, but also an inheritor. While growing up, she took part in Detroit-based arts advocacy programs led by women who were family members and Black community leaders. Born from that powerful legacy, Pryor is highlighting these women in a new exhibition, which opened this month and runs through December at the Charles H. Wright Museum in Detroit.
“The entire project is an homage and a discovery, an uncovering of the professional lives of Josephine Harreld-Love, who was the principal founder of Your Heritage House, and Dell Pryor, who remains a curator, and was gallerist and owner of Dell Pryor Galleries,” Malika Pryor says. She adds that they were forerunners in the city of Detroit, creating arts spaces, while similarly melding their professional lives with the creative.
“To Whom Much Is Given is a project that really has its genesis in a conversation that I had with [composer and educator] Karen DiCheiera over 10 years ago, specifically about Josephine Love,” says Pryor. “But the project as it has come to be understood, and ultimately executed on, is an initiative in three parts: Mission I’m Possible, which is a youth arts experience; TWMIG: The Mural Experience, which is the exhibition’s mural, designed and painted by Ijania Cortez; and then there is the exhibition itself.”
Pryor, an Organizational Studies and Afroamerican and African Studies alum (B.A. 2000), is Love’s cousin. She is also the granddaughter of Dell Pryor, the other arts figure highlighted in the show. Both women were integral to Malika Pryor’s understanding of how the arts can change lives, and therefore, who she chose to carry forward in an exhibition that chronicles their influence in Detroit by showcasing personal collections, archives, literature, and other commissioned art pieces.
To Whom Much Is Given: An Exhibition, a Mural, and an Experience
Like much of Pryor’s previous work, the larger To Whom Much Is Given endeavor is about the power of narrative. “The project is designed to be holistic in design as well,” says Pryor, who once had a career as a lawyer, but returned to the arts because of a deep love and respect for those who preceded her. She is now the chief learning and engagement officer at the International African American Museum.
Drawing inspiration from her own time in Love’s arts program at Your Heritage House, Pryor also felt it was important to make the youth experience as financially barrier free as possible, with all expenses except transportation covered.
When Pryor further considers the Mission I’m Possible youth, she is reminded of her mentor. “Ms. Love had a very firm and ardent belief that professional artists teach children,” says Pryor. “She believed that young people deserved to have the very best and most highly qualified individuals at any given time engaging with them.” Pryor’s contemporary students were afforded that opportunity while in residence at the Scarab Club, where they got to be in conversation with the likes of poet and producer Joel Fluent Greene and multidisciplinary artist Carole Marisseau, among others.
“The muralist Ijania Cortez actually met with the students and had conversations with them about ideas they had for the motif,” says Pryor. Cortez incorporated their ideas into the mural itself. The finished product, aided by a partnership between To Whom Much Is Given and Detroit Arts, Culture & Entrepreneurship, went up in Midtown.
The double portrait mural lives on the corner of Forest and Cass avenues. The location is just two blocks south of where Pryor’s grandmother last worked as a gallerist, a fitting place to carry on Detroit’s legacy of Black excellence. “I was really hoping for a wall in Midtown because these women’s businesses served as prototypes for a new Midtown, one it hadn’t yet aspired to be,” Pryor says. “They helped to create a more culturally responsive and inclusive arts space.”
Portraits of Dell Pryor, Josephine Love, and Malika Pryor. Photos courtesy of Malika Pryor. Photos (left to right) by James Charles Morris, Marc Manley, and Jackson Petit.
Connecting Young Creatives with Detroit’s Past
Although the first part of the exhibition focuses on the lives of Josephine Love and Dell Pryor, Malika Pryor also wants to remind Detroiters of their permanence in a city that can, at times, seem to forget them.
“There is a contemporary mythos that has begun to evolve in the city of Detroit, and this is something that has really been perpetuated since the early 2000s when you had some of the poverty porn and images of broken-down factories, as if that were the entire city,” says Pryor. “I find that increasingly, Detroiters, especially young Detroiters, because they were born and raised in a time where that was the dominant narrative of the city, don’t feel a sense of connectivity to their contemporary history. Part of why this exhibition and this moment was so important to me was that I wanted to help connect those young creatives to their history.”
While the exhibition, in all its forms, does just that, it also honors beloved Detroit arts figures, particularly Love. “Josephine would be over 100 years old right now,” says Pryor. “And we hadn’t come to a place where we were appreciating the work she had done by the time she passed.”
Pryor adds that within months, unless a person were personally connected or involved, they might not have known that Your Heritage House ever existed. And while there are recognition efforts for Black artists and changemakers now, Pryor says that was not happening in 2002, when Josephine Love was still alive. “While it was critical for me to be able to tell elements of the story for Dell, who is also my grandmother, I really wanted to be able to uplift Josephine.”
To Whom Much Is Given was awarded a 2019 Knights Arts Challenge Grant and is fiscally sponsored by the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
Learn about To Whom Much Is Given