Bakpak Durden Traces a Birthmark’s Lineage

DETROIT — Above a little snarl where Detroit’s major freeways meet in the middle of the city, a towering mural rises into view. Painted by Smug, the artwork depicts city native painter and muralist Bakpak Durden in a larger-than-life calling card that suits its unexpectedly approachable subject perfectly.

“Smug was one of the artists that was part of the Street Art for Mankind cohort that was going to paint in Detroit,” Durden explained during an interview with Hyperallergic at local coffee shop-by-day and club-by-night, Spot Lite. “He reached out to find a Black, queer artist from Detroit, who was masculine-presenting and would play up feminine. And I was the guy.”

Durden, who uses they/them pronouns, has a kind of obsession with intersectionality — not necessarily in the sense of the aforementioned identity markers, but rather metaphysically through conceptions of time and space. The artist’s compositions, whether on the macro scale of murals or smaller gallery-sized paintings and mixed-media works, often involve informational addendums or connective geometric forms that indicate movement between generations, dimensions, or geography. For example, in a recent and ongoing series focused on the hands of Durden’s great-grandfather, who emigrated and applied for United States citizenship in 1917, the artist underlays scans of the original citizenship application etched in steel with paintings of their ancestor’s hands in greyscale and of their own hands in color.

“This [document] says he’s a skilled laborer, and that he has a scar on his hand — is it the same place as my birthmark?” said Durden, pointing to their hand. “Everything that he did is similar to what I do, and feels so familiar.”

This connectivity to community, reckoning with previous generations, and the sense that history echoes into the present are all themes that resonate deeply in Detroit, a place where reconciliation with the past is a daily activity on both a civic and personal level. Raised in Detroit, Durden initially attended college to become a doctor before making a lateral move into fine arts and eventually dropping out entirely. The trace interests of an armchair physicist still linger in Durden’s images that graft subtext onto reality, inviting the invisible aspects of our lives — feelings, history, perception — into visible focus. As a member of several communities that struggle against constant marginalization, Durden’s monumental likeness rendered amid the downtown skyline conveys something deeply important about who gets to take up space and be seen — a consideration that is never far from Durden’s mind when it’s their turn to select a subject for a mural.

“I’m just a quiet guy who likes to observe,” Durden said. “But when I’m going into this public space, I think it’s important to have a conversation. Even if it’s not, like, a man on the street, but conversation with the people that are in the area. Because after I leave painting there, that has to stick, right? And so if there’s a struggle or a cultural thing that needs to be highlighted or uplifted, and it’s not necessarily my own, I can relate my own experiences to what they’re going through and we can all rise together.”

In the studio, however, Durden is free to follow their own interests and obsessions, holding this sacred space inviolable to the point of refusing studio visits.

“I feel like there’s a lack of privacy on many fronts within our society,” Durden explained, “and I value my privacy, to sometimes a crippling degree. There’s oftentimes people who want to acquire the work that they only value when they are allowed to encroach on my space, and so instead of parsing out who was allowed to come into my space, I just say no one.”

Ironically, the private moments that Durden guards so fiercely become open to the public. The artist is more often than not the subject of their own work, which can meditate heavily on states of mental health crisis, identity, and coping with neurodivergence. Further, when it comes to the gallery space, Durden is eager for interpersonal exchange and viewer participation, often soliciting feedback through forms in their exhibitions. For example, a 2021–22 exhibition, I Feel Like I’ve Been Here Before at Playground Detroit, asked viewers to respond by sharing what senses are ignited by the paintings, which show Durden in various attitudes of despair: staring into the fridge, struggling to get through daily grounding activities like playing with their cat, or sleeping cocooned in blankets. Another prompt asked viewers to tell a story based on the order of the paintings.

“That was like a Choose Your Own Adventure, choose your own narrative,” Durden recalled. “I read all of them, usually at the end of the year around Christmas, when everyone’s doing something and I’m not, and it’s nice and quiet.” This act of encouraging reflection on their work has been part of Durden’s practice since their first show in 2018 at KO Gallery in Hamtramck, Michigan, when they displayed a notebook asking visitors, “Tell Us How You Feel.” More than just generative for Durden, it’s a service they provide to viewers as a way to process emotions.

“There’s an importance in being heard, even if I’m not posting the thing publicly,” added Durden. “And leaving the exhibitions having shed all of what you felt and not leaving with raw, scary emotions is my responsibility [to the viewers].”

The Eye of Horus
Installation view of Bakpak Durden, The Eye of Horus (2022) at the Cranbrook Art Museum

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