The first exhibition of Massey’s artwork in Texas, A Different World showcases three bodies of work that reference the material culture of nostalgic pasts, from 1980s hip hop to African hair braiding. Informed primarily by jewelry, Massey’s diverse artistic practice deftly renders her observations on race and class in contemporary American culture.
The exhibition focuses on the artist’s colossal steel sculptures of chains and rings, alongside intricately braided crimson neckpieces and accompanying portraits. Themes in the exhibition span cultural appropriation, authenticity, and the diasporic legacy of “bling.” Guest curator and former HCCC Curatorial Fellow, Sarah Darro, comments, “A Different World reflects the intersectional interests of Massey’s work in an immersive installation that emphasizes physical junctions and meeting points. Corners and thresholds in the gallery become potent spaces for her works, which themselves function as sites of critical dialogue about space, the body, and politics of race, class, and gender.”
Borrowing forms from iconic Dookie Rope chains and four-finger rings, Massey mines the use of jewelry as an element of early hip-hop culture, relating “bling” to a legacy of adornment that traces back to African nomadic tribes and royalty. Informed by the 1980s Detroit of her youth, a period that lauded black culture, bespoke jewelry, and ostentatious personal adornment, Massey recognizes visual and physical weight as a principal tenant of hip-hop jewelry, drawing attention to the wearer as well as reminding the wearer of the piece. She says, “Bling is audacious. It’s in your face. I’m using hip hop as a reference for the scale, for the weight of the work.” She learned to fabricate the illusion of weight in metal, using techniques like hollow-forming to achieve voluminous, architectural silhouettes in her jewelry. In her series, Everyday Arsenal (2018), she further emphasizes this weight, bringing her jewelry to a monumental scale through massive steel reproductions of rings she designed for each of her fingers.
Massey approaches her artistic output like a social scientist. She is interested in what happens when people are adorned, the ways in which jewelry causes people to hold themselves differently and more confidently, and how jewelry functions socially as a technology of belonging. Chains are potent cultural symbols and, in hip hop, can signify affiliation with music labels and organizations, with members collectively owning and wearing particular chains. Massey explores this symbolism in her monumental 18-foot sculpture, Facet (2010), in which diamond-shaped steel links, large enough for a person’s torso to fit through, are connected through an articulated chain. At this exaggerated scale, the artist explores how work can adorn landscape and speak to a community.
Massey is devoted to the exploration of material, in service of the conceptual themes that underpin her work. In her series, Je Ne Sais Coiff (ongoing), she applies African hair-braiding and coiling techniques to wool, jute, and rope to create necklaces informed by tribal hair designs affiliated with royalty and wealth. By accompanying this work with stark photographic portraits of the white women who are wearing these pieces, Massey effectively broaches topics of ownership, bodies and hair, the performance of identity, and cultural appropriation.
A Different World showcases Massey’s diverse, conceptual approach to material and presents a unique opportunity for visitors to experience jewelry on a monumental scale, while exploring some of today’s most pressing social issues.
Tiff Massey: A Different World is curated by Sarah Darro. The exhibition is supported in part by the Society of North American Goldsmiths (SNAG).
About Tiff Massey
Artist Tiff Massey’s oeuvre is expressed in mediums as varied as metal, fiber, wood, and performance and in scales as varied as monumental sculpture, wearable adornment, and immersive installation. The Detroit artist earned an MFA in metalsmithing from Cranbrook Academy of Art, and her work, despite its wide range, remains informed by jewelry—drawing from its cultural history, processes, techniques, and materials. Massey’s work has been widely exhibited nationally and internationally, at venues including the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the Society of Arts + Crafts in Boston, Craft in America in Los Angeles, Library Street Collective in Detroit, and Galerie Marzee in Nijmegen, Netherlands. She is the recipient of the prestigious Kresge Arts in Detroit Fellowship; Michigan Chronicle’s 40 under 40 Award; the Best Time-Based Performance at SiteLab during Art Prize in Grand Rapids, Michigan; and most recently, the Susan Beech Mid-Career Artist Grant, which is the largest art jewelry cash award in the U.S. Massey has also participated in international residencies including the Red Bull Arts Residency in Detroit, Ideas City hosted by The New Museum of New York, and the Volterra-Detroit Foundation in Italy.