Robert-David Jones is a work of art.
Raised in Detroit’s Boston Edison, he discovered his passion for the arts at seven years old and by eight, he had sold his first painting — a depiction of Shakespeare’s Othello (his father, a Fulbright & Shakespearean scholar, had performed the play over 300 times).
These days he directs public programming at Red Bull Arts Detroit, a national artist residency, visiting curator and writer fellowship, housed in a former brewery in Eastern Market. The program aims to extend the boundaries of exhibition making; support the production of new work by emerging and established artists; participate in and respond to the needs of local arts communities; and contribute to ongoing dialogue around contemporary issues and thought.
EXP: Which artist has had the biggest influence on you?
R-DJ: It’s difficult to name just one. Currently, artists that have influence over the way I would like to approach my work and life are Devin Allen and Hank Willis Thomas. Devin had little to no introduction as to what is perceived to be the traditional fine art world. Through his lens as an amateur photographer, Devin’s documentation of the civil uprising following the Freddie Gray verdict in his native Baltimore changed his life and his community. Hank Thomas’ work similarly seeks truth while evoking comfort and discomfort. This vehicle holds so much value in creating conversations – it’s all about the juxtaposition of reaching beyond social and personal boundaries.
EXP: Given Detroit’s relationship to the wider world of contemporary art how can the local art scene stay true to its heritage?
R-DJ: I think the approach has to be thoughtful to connect the dots in an intentional way. Research comes to mind. Artists who straddle the lines between art, advocacy, and community while still reflecting on the city’s rich history possess a strength and integrity that is very much Detroit. It’s a delicate integration often overlooked.
EXP: Which Detroit galleries are shaking things up?
R-DJ: Unlike galleries in New York, art spaces in Detroit can’t really afford to shut down during the summer. This forces us to be more creative with exhibitions and programs that are a bit more experimental. Honorable mentions are Dabl’s African Bead Museum, KO Studio Gallery in Hamtramck has done a consistent job of mixing it up, and David Klein Gallery downtown is always worth the visit.
EXP: When you go out, do you prefer Old Detroit or New Detroit?
R-DJ: I’m fortunate enough to enjoy a mix of both. I live and work in Eastern Market, so Stache is my neighborhood watering hole. My favorite spot in the city is Bronx Bar – it embodies the spirit of the Cass Corridor and is definitely Old Detroit. I’ve been going there for over a decade and the same bartenders are still working there. I’m an avid pool player so wherever I go, I’ll try to make sure there’s a table in sight. Giovanna’s Lounge is a favorite if you’re looking for the real deal authentic Southwest Detroit experience. I love to eat so I’ll grab a snack in The Belt over at The Skip on a warm night after tennis or taking the dog swimming. Shout out to my man Jesse Knott who runs the food cart. If it’s well priced and exceptionally portioned street food you seek, then look no further.