Interview with Tiff Massey

Our Craft in America Center Director and Curator, Emily Zaiden, recently had an engaging virtual interview with jeweler Tiff Massey, whose work is now on display in the Politically Speaking exhibition.
EZ: I would like to understand more about the messages you wanted to explore in creating this group of work. What was your inspirational starting point for this installation?  Is it material, an idea or something else?  How do you begin your process?
 TM: B(l)ack Then You Didn’t Want me Now Im Hot Your All On Me is continuation of the exhibition entitled What Up Doe for the Lille 3000 triennial entitled Renaissance that took place in Lille, France 2015. Detroit artists were the only national representatives in Lille for the exhibition and I was the only African American represented in the exhibition. Detroit is an 80% black city and to be the only representative of the city’s population stood out to me along with the tired narrative of new Renaissance emerging in Detroit.  I decided the work needed to be black to represent, regardless of if I was physically present or not. I made more sculptural pieces for the exhibition along with photography documenting a true depiction of Detroit’s residents.
This body of work is very Detroit and it speaks to how Detroit was a place that (white) people feared/avoided and didn’t fiscally invest in because of the city’s history of race related problems starting before the 1960s rebellion. Even though Detroit is loaded with political overtones, growing up in Detroit was amazing. The juxtaposition between my childhood and the political corruption of the city is the essence of the work.
The materiality I chose specifically speaks to my childhood, especially with the use of the googly eyes in Mirror 3 which is a second series of a window installation I created in Lille, France. The windows were filled with mirrored faces stacked on top of each peering into the space specifically speaking to how all eyes are on Detroit. The use of mirrors is important to my work because it’s a great tool to negate the viewers participation with the subject matter. Once the viewer is reflected into the work they cannot be removed from the work. The pom poms in Mirror 1 and the braids with the foiled tips in That Girl are in reference to nostalgic iconic African American hair styles usually worn by children.
EZ: Do you see this as specifically pertaining to identity in/of Detroit, if so, how?
TF: Yes, this work is very Detroit and it is also very me. I am Detroit. This body of work encompasses the nostalgic qualities of my adolescence mixed with ostentatious Detroit style juxtaposed with the contemporary politics of the city. The pieces Full Extraction and Gem are in direct response to Detroit’s political standing, or shall I say, branding. Full Exaction is made of large prong settings that are missing their gems. Detroit is being white washed, literally. The culture and the true essence of the city has been extracted and replaced with new forms of architecture along with new businesses that are not catering to Detroiters or their needs. Leaving you with just smoke and mirrors.
 EZ: What are your thoughts about wearability? Is that something you weigh or challenge? Should they remain on a wall? What are your views about this shifting practice in craft?
TM: Wearability – Detroiters want to be seen. So yes, all my works are wearable unless I increase the scale so that you have to interact with the works in a different capacity.
My jewelry is large scale to defy the constraints of the jewelry box. After wearing, hang the piece on the wall. B(l)ack Then You Didnt Want me Now Im Hot Your All On Me are statement pieces and are all one of a kind. This is very Detroit. In Detroit, nobody wants to look like anybody else. Detroiters want to “stunt!” — To stunt or stunting is a physical and mental expression of sureness when showing off. My work is not a trinket or something you can barley see. I am challenging the standard ideals of adornment. My references are African aesthetics for adorning the body as well as Hip-Hop jewelry aka Bling. Bling is a contemporary version of how African nomadic tribes and royalty would adorn themselves.
Influenced by Detroit’s history of ostentatious fashion, my work examines how symbols of wealth in the regalia of African diaspora affect the wearer’s behavior and attitude. What happens when the viewer becomes adorned and how does the environment facilitate that transition from the unadorned to the adorned? How does the context and placement of an object influence an individual’s perception of self? Once activated, the pieces immediately create a sense of confidence in the wearer, producing an increased desire to show off and be seen.  Whether it is a sculpture on a wall, an object set in an outdoor landscape, or jewelry worn by the viewer, my work maintains an engagement of the body itself.  A larger-than- life scale and weight confront the wearer with nostalgia, referencing the 80’s Hip-Hop jewelry. What intrigues me the most about my wearable sculptures is how the work makes people feel. Once the body activates the piece, the wearer takes on a persona very different from their first encounter with the works. This brief window of sureness; the “I’m it” expression validates the very essence of its conception. This is why I make. This is the Detroit way-of- life being shared through the vehicle of jewelry. This is not just a symbolic gesture usually associated with love. The work is about your own “you-ness’ when you feel like a million bucks – Slick Rick said it best “I’m fresh, dressed like a million bucks.”

EZ: Do you see this strictly as a whole set or would you break this up into pairs?

TM: The works belongs in pairs but they could stand alone as individual pieces.

EZ: Can you name some significant inspirations?
TM: Growing up in Detroit my father would get custom jewelry made from our family’s jeweler. Being surrounded by gold and diamonds has totally left an impression on me.
EZ: How has the upcoming election and/or recent political events had an impact on your work? Is it something you have considered consciously or expressed in your work?
TM: B(l)ack Then You Didn’t Want me Now Im Hot Your All On Me is a comment on Detroit’s politics. It’s a direct response to “take over” of the city and the reverse white flight. Growing up in Detroit it was rare seeing other races in my neighborhood, let alone downtown Detroit. All I saw was representations of myself. Now, when visitors arrive knowing the demographic of the city they ask, “Where are all the black people?” From Cass Corridor (Midtown) to downtown it is rare to see an abundance of brown faces in new businesses, let alone walking the streets. So the work is void of color. It’s Black.