Artist And Scholar Rebekah Modrak Calls Out The Cultural Appropriation Of Black Detroit In New Work 'Rethink Shinola'
Modrak investigates watch company Shinola, and shows how she believes it appropriates black culture and exploits black bodies for profit.
Cultural appropriation and gentrification are certainly pressing topics within the black community. One artist and scholar is tackling appropriation through creative means through her look at Detroit —black Detroit, to be specific.
University of Michigan Associate Professor Rebekah Modrak created and launched Rethink Shinola, a timed animation project that targets brand Shinola and takes a critical look at how it's contributing to the erasure of Detroit's black community.
Like what you're reading?
Get more in your inbox.
Shinola originated as a shoe-polish company with a history of racist and tone-deaf advertisements. In 2011, privately owned Texas investment group Bedrock Brands took the name of the defunct company, using it as the name of their new watch company.
Bedrock decided to make its watches in Detroit rather than in Texas after market research showed that consumers were willing to pay more for items made in that city.
In her new piece, Modrak works to show how Bedrock's Shinola fits into a classic "Great White Hope" narrative.
For instance, the artist looks at one of Shinola's most famous advertising campaigns, shot by Bruce Weber, which features a white model cozying up to black Detroit citizens.
“Photographed in black and white, dressed in clothing that could easily be mistaken for Jim Crow period fashions, the images elicit an imperialist nostalgia for a “glorious” past of white patronage and the benevolent white mistress,” Modrak writes in Rethink Shinola.
This campaign, and the way Shinola often touts having elevated its mostly black workforce out of poverty (pay averages $11.50 per hour for those working the watch maker's assembly line according to Rethink Shinola) bothered Modrak, but a March 2015 lecture at the University of Michigan's Center for Entrepreneurship by Shinola's president really provided the spark for her new work.
“The lecture was for a large class of students — over a hundred students interested in entrepreneurism,” Modrak told Hyperallergic.
“I got there early and sat for fifteen minutes with the image of this young African American girl looking out at me from the screen — with Shinola branded across her chest. It was one of Bruce Weber’s images. All the faculty associated with the class seemed to be white men, the director of the course and program was a white man, and then Jacques Panis comes out, with no sense of what it meant to exhibit this image of a person of color and the sense of ownership over that image. No historical sense of our country’s history of enslaving and exploiting African Americans for profit and for control, a system that’s still perpetuated today, if not in the owning of humans then in their imprisonment, in economic disinvestment, and controlling their images. For most of its history, and you could argue even now, that when it comes to capital, it’s a medium largely controlled by white men.”
In her digital piece, Modrak further develops this point, using data to illustrate how she believes Shinola's appropriation tactics have affected the economic status of black Detroit residents.
“Since opening Shinola, Bedrock Manufacturing Co. has raised hundreds of millions of dollars, including over $125 million from “friends and family,” made up of investments from Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures LLC and the Kresge Foundation,” wrote Modrak. “This is during a time when, according to the most recent census data, 40.3 percent of Detroit residents live below the federal poverty line – $24,008 for a family of four. African Americans make up 83 percent of Detroit’s population, yet only 15 perecent of private company revenues. Why? Black businesses were unable to be a major part of the 'downtown development.'"
The artist also compares the language used by Panis and Shinola to the way a media company sells its contemporary minstrel show in Spike Lee's Bamboozled.
In the film, the media company takes pains to show that it employs black people, uses only positive language to describe its product, invokes the names of civil rights heroes and uses the word "community" as much as possible.
Through the company's own advertising and outreach, Modrak shows how Shinola follows these rules closely.
Still, Modrak makes it clear that Rethink Shinola isn't “a critique of the Shinola employee who works for an income to make a living, but a critique of the company and the system that expropriates 'community.'"
Instead, she has a problem with what she calls the company's "white supremacy," arguing that "Shinola devalues African Americans and advances whiteness within sophisticated graphic design and brand marketing; the assumption of superiority, of dominance and subordination, playing out elegantly within everyday interactions and messages."
To this she adds that, "Detroiters should control the word “Detroit.” African Americans should control their own representations and should define and control resources to build 'community.'"
Finally she asks consumers to "rethink Shinola. Stop buying colonialist versions of Detroit and blackness. Do not buy Shinola products."
For more information on Rethink Shinola and to view Modrak's artwork, visit http://rethinkshinola.com/. Note that the piece was designed to be viewed on a desktop or laptop rather than on a mobile device.