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Women artists in conversation: Tiff Massey Q&A [Part I]

Tiff Massey is a young artist whose work ranges from wearable sculpture to large-scale public interventions. She is the first African-American woman to graduate from Cranbrook Academy of Art’s MFA in Metalsmithing. She cites her influences as ranging from 1980s hip-hop culture and her hometown of Detroit to African art and Japanese fashion. Her work often implicates the viewer or wearer, incorporating them into dialogues about space, as well as racial and gender politics.

Massey is a 2015 Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship awardee, as well as a two-time John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge winner and a Michigan Chronicle 40 Under 40 award recipient. She has participated in several international residencies including Ideas City (in Detroit, Athens, Greece and Arles, France) hosted by The New Museum of New York and with the Volterra-Detroit Foundation in Volterra, Italy. Her work has been widely exhibited in both national and international museums and galleries.

In the first of a two-part interview, she talks with Benezit Dictionary of Artists editor, Kathy Battista, about her work as well as her vision for bringing art education to underserved areas of Detroit.

Kathy: The first question I have is about scale in your work. Are large sculptures like I Do, I Do, I Doooo related to similar forms found in your jewelry? 

Tiff: I started exploring scale when I was in grad school, around 2010. I wasn’t satisfied with a bracelet that I made out of wood. When placed it on the table, I noticed that the orientation would change, and I became fascinated with that aspect. So I increased the scale to 3 ½ x 8 ft long, expecting my colleagues to interact with it and they just respected it as sculpture and didn’t touch it at all. The only time people interacted with it was the procession of moving it from the shop to its location for critique. I’m not satisfied with the scale of a personal object or a work just for an individualized experience. In the public realm I am able to share my work with people who are not well versed in the arts and because I’m not satisfied with the scale of the jewelry, I often recreate the objects that are meant for the body larger for the landscape. So, yes, there is a relationship.

K: And when you say “the public,” are those pieces typically commissioned?

T: The first sculpture that I created was Facet and that piece is permanently installed in Detroit at The Belt. It was for ArtPrize, initially in 2010, and then I was asked to place the work in an alley that they were activating with art. My other pieces were commissioned. I’m currently working on matching a grant from the Knight Foundation to create one of Detroit’s largest sculptures, which will be installed permanently at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Tiff Massey: Facet, steel, 216 x 54 x 6 (variable), 2010. Image courtesy of the artist.

The goal is to have it made of mirrored stainless steel – modeled after [one of my bracelets]. I am thinking 30 ft wide by 20 ft tall, but since it’s outdoors, it might need to be bigger. The idea is to have this submerged in the ground so people would be able to walk through the bracelet itself and into an interior space.

K: I love the ambition of your outdoor sculpture. Is this a feminist response to artists like Serra, Koons, and the other guys making big work?

T: Actually, it’s more like, “I’m here. You can’t deny me.” The objects that I choose are a different aesthetic. They are still shiny and reflective, but my background comes from 1980s hip-hop and growing up in Detroit. The imagery is very different from the line and the form and the spaces that they create within their works.

K: We’ve talked about how the big public work will be reflective. How does that connect to your mirrored works? 

T: I’ve been using mirrors since 2009. I was examining political subject matter and dealing with appropriation. One of my first pieces was a response to “The Fabric of Our Lives,” the cotton logo. So I created this piece The Fabric of Whose Life Muthafucka? It’s a mirrored cotton logo and then I wove my hair inside of it to create the cotton blossom. And within the logo, instead of plants, there are cutout images of figures, made from photographs of lynchings. At Cranbrook, I was slapping people in the face with this imagery, really confronting them with American history. A lot of people would say, “I don’t have anything to do with this” or “I don’t really know much about this.” Yeah, you do. There is no separation now. I started to like that aspect. Creating a space where people can’t get out of the work; they are a part of it because their reflection is actually in it.

I was the only black woman on campus and the first black woman to graduate from the metalsmithing department. The first black man was there with me too. People would want to have conversations with me that they wouldn’t have with the black men that were on campus, but when it came down to the work, I felt that my artist in residence, Iris Eichenberg, was fighting for me the most. My counterparts didn’t necessarily know how to talk or want to talk about the work, or they would think it was racist. I was like, how does that even function? Let’s unpack this.

Tiff Massey: The Fabric of Whose Life Muthafucka?, wood, acrylic, and hair, 10 x 12 x ¾ ins, 2010. Image courtesy of the artist.

Look out for the second part of this interview, where Battista will speak to Massey about her influences and beginnings as an artist.

In 2018, the Benezit Dictionary of Artists has devoted a year to commissioning new biographies to revising and expanding current entries on women artists. Read the previous posts in this blog series here.

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