Tiff Massey on Metalwork, Black Culture, and Community

    Known for “bridging art with activism” (Hypebeast), Detroit artist Tiff Massey’s latest show—a year-long spotlight in her hometown—has been named one of 2024’s “Most Exciting U.S. Art Exhibitions” by The Guardian. Visitors to the collection at The Detroit Institute of Art, named 7 Mile + Livernois in a nod to Massey’s growing up in the area, will experience her distinctive interdisciplinary creations in her most ambitious museum installation to date.

    Though “metal is king” in her work, Massey’s creations work her metalsmithing skills—honed through master’s degree studies at the prestigious Cranbrook Academy of Art—together with other materials (wood, fiber, glass and more) to create pieces and wearable sculptures that celebrate Black creativity and culture and aim to provoke “conversations,” she says.

     “I would definitely call myself a storyteller,” Massey tells WayMaker Journal. “I think that that title would trump my artist title… because every time that I’m having an exhibition, I want you to immerse yourself in the conversation or what I have been researching, and things like that.”

    Massey is honored by the Detroit showcase, which runs through May next year. “I’m very appreciative,” she says. “It’s not too many times you have an institution at this caliber that is saying, ‘This is what we want inside of our doors. This is what we are validating. We see the craftsmanship, we see the culture,’” she says.

    The Detroit show is the latest and most significant in a blooming career that has seen Massey featured in scores of group and six solo exhibitions across the United States and in France, Germany, Greece and Italy.

    Massey didn’t set out to be an artist—her first plan was to become a veterinarian. But when she got to Eastern Michigan University, she wanted something to break up the monotony of her biology and chemistry classes, so she picked up on the metalsmithing she had dabbled in for a couple of years while she was in high school.

    After graduating with a science degree, Massey spent the next year “mixing chemicals” at a community college. She soon realized it was boring. “I would hurry up and do the chemistry-biology work as quick as I could and just run straight to the metal studio.” She realized that “I could have kept my lab coat on, but it kind of worked better carving stone and actually welding. That’s where my interest lies.”

    Seeing a reflection 

    Massey’s work is infused with both her personal and community history. She draws on her knowledge of the African diaspora, her experience growing up in Detroit, her sense of history and her love of hip-hop. “I’m an ‘80s baby,” she says, recalling the influence of two older siblings who were in high school when she was born. “The bobbed haircuts, the two-finger rings and things like that were a heavy influence upon me.” Her first metalsmith class efforts were replicating the big, chunky Lucite rings that were popular then.

    Black culture is the foundation of her work, and she recognizes the importance of celebrating and reflecting it for others because often, “we don’t see reflections of ourselves. And so then how do you become the reflection of the youth? If you don’t see yourself, then how can you be the self that other people see?”

    At the same time, she is looking to speak to a broader audience. “I want everybody to feel comfortable and be invited,” she says of her latest exhibition. “I’m talking about Black culture and whatever, but that doesn’t mean that white culture can’t come, or Indian culture can’t come, or Japanese culture. I mean, we are the diaspora. And so, we’ve been all over the world. We are the world… everybody is us.”

    It’s great that now we cannot unsee the talent of Black and African artists.

    Massey is encouraged to see Black artists finding more gallery space in which to share their work. She references “a big push for figurative Black art,” which she welcomes “because we’re able to, basically for the first time, see each other in this space… I think it’s great that now we cannot unsee the talent of Black and African artists.” Some of the photorealist art coming from Africa is “just dope as f—-.”

    It’s not all a new thing; rather, “it’s just the fact that now maybe the galleries and the institutions are tired of having the same story or talking to the same people.” Massey references Picasso—“We already know where he went in his travels to go copy and extract… At the end of the day, we’ve been on the map. It’s just other people who’ve been copying or having the platform and not giving the credit where the credit was due.”

    Practice as if no one is looking and no one is ever going to look.

    Ignoring a ‘no’ 

    Thinking of her teen self, what advice does Massey have for young people pursuing artistic efforts? “Don’t stop,” she says firmly. “Even when people say no; that’s that one specific person’s no—that doesn’t mean that that is the no for the rest of your life.”

    Believe in yourself and seek out other avenues for pursuing your goals, she says. “Then give it your all. And you really have to practice as if no one is looking and no one is ever going to look.” While you are doing that, don’t gauge your progress against your contemporaries. Just because someone else gets picked up early. “That’s not your story,” she says.  “That’s their story. We all get to our places that we’re supposed to be when it’s our time. Don’t compare yourself to others.”

    RELATED: A Heart for Art

    Artists need to have a head for business as well as an eye for beauty: “Because you have to do all the things. You have to be your own marketing. You have to be your own PR. You have to be the labor.” Leave it to someone else and you’re likely to get taken advantage of, she warns. “You can be talented all day, but who’s your audience? Are you going to talk to them? Are you personable?”

    Artists also need to advocate for themselves. “You can’t just be painting and thinking that this gallery has your best interests,” she says. “Sometimes you have to advocate and that sucks that you have to fight against someone who you think actually believes in you hardcore and they don’t. It’s a business.”

    Massey speaks from experience. Though she has always believed in herself, she admits to getting her fair share of nos along the way. She has never been represented by a gallery because she wanted to maintain her independence, but the nature and sometimes grand scale of her art means that she needs to work with others at times. Some pieces can take five or six people to make them function the way they are intended to.

    Away from the studio, Massey has gotten involved in real estate (she studied to be a general contractor to learn the ins and outs of developing buildings) and founded Blackbrook, a proposed nonprofit center providing creative art opportunities for Detroit youth. “My practice is more than just me being classically trained as a metalsmith and having this huge exhibition,” she says, “it’s the community endeavor as well.” 


    There have been quite a few, from my first jewelry teacher who saw that I was ambitious, Miss Henry, and was like, “Oh, let’s go.” My instructor at Eastern Michigan University, Gretchen Otto, saw something in me as well. At Cranbrook [Academy of Art], Iris Eichenberg definitely led the way . . . It’s many people, and I’m forever a student.

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