Interview with artist Tiff Massey

This story was originally published in the Spring/Summer 2017 issue of PATTERN Magazine in the Detroit focus section. Since we’d met with Massey in early 2017, she’s had a hectic year capped off in a big way when she received a $200,000 grant from the Knight Arts Challenge for an installation at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. We’re looking forward to seeing what the future holds for this dynamic woman!

Tiff Massey is an artist in every sense of the word. A sculptor, contemporary jeweler, and musician, Massey constantly pushes the boundaries of what it means to be a creator in today’s culture.

“I compartmentalize my different art forms,” says Massey. “But my latest music and visual art project, Detroit is Black, was the first time I saw them blending together. For me, that’s the new direction I want to go with my work.”

Even with a focus on more performative, cross-disciplinary projects, Massey’s artistic roots remain grounded in contemporary art jewelry. Her fondness of jewelry dates back to her childhood—memories of shopping for it with her father and being surrounded by materials that continue to inspire her today, gold and diamonds.

“This was the ’80s, so jewelry was widely influenced by hip-hop, and the scale of jewelry was very large,”

Massey says. “It was the origin of contemporary bling, and it was pivotal in the way I think about my work.”

Photo by Esther Boston

But when the size constraints of jewelry are too small to satisfy Massey’s artistic message, she turns to sculpture to create large-scale, experiential pieces. Which explains  her newfound desire to seek more public installation projects this year.

“I want to give a true narrative of what’s happening in Detroit. Who controls the narrative is something that’s of interest to me. And more public sculptures participating in that realm are important,” says Massey.

Growing up in Detroit and still there as an adult, Massey finds the it to be the inspiration and subject of much of her art. She calls attention to the stark juxtaposition of new and old in the city she calls home. A recent surge in economic and cultural development means that new buildings, businesses, and events have edged their way into the Detroit landscape. But according to Massey, not all these developments serve to benefit the community, especially its original residents.

“Where are the jobs that go with this new development? Who is this really benefiting?” she asks. “We don’t have schools in the city; a lot of them are closing this year. How can you talk about a new restaurant that serves small plates when the kids don’t even have a school to go to?”

The tensions of race, class, and the intersection of the two are exactly the issues Massey explores in her art. By examining these subjects through the lenses of the African diaspora and life in Detroit, the viewers of Massey’s works are confronted with the same questions of narrative ownership that seemingly drive her work.

Despite her concerns, Massey hopes everyone there will come together. “I really want people to be vested in Detroit instead of invested,” says Massey. “It’s all about building a community. Just because you built a new building doesn’t mean anything for the city. A city doesn’t exist without people, and community is always what has kept Detroit alive.”

With people like Massey in Detroit’s corner, it’s hard to see the city going anywhere but in a positive, more inclusive direction in the years to come. At least for Massey and her ever-evolving artwork, the future is promising.

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