In Her Detroit Garden, Halima Cassells Honors Her Ancestors With Her Art

With a house and a garden that was passed down from generation to generation, the multidisciplinary artist Halima Cassells is finding ways to honor her past and push her practice forward by finding organic, non-toxic materials to create with.

The Artist Next Door illuminates and celebrates Detroit area artists from a variety of cultural backgrounds and disciplines to enhance awareness and understanding of our communities and cultures.

Erik Paul Howard
Erik Paul Howard

It feels like a very Detroit thing to have house music gently floating out the window and into the backyard on a summer evening.

That’s the scene in multidisciplinary artist Halima Cassells’ lush urban oasis in Detroit’s North End neighborhood, where she grows many of the things she regularly cooks for herself and her family. There are skyscrapers and a freeway not far away from her home, but it’s easy to forget you’re in a city among the vegetation and artwork scattered around the yard.

“Here we have potatoes, asparagus, chives, celery…,” Cassells lists off the veggies growing in her backyard as she walks around the garden, gathering food for that night’s dinner.

“This is part of my practice — living every day how I want to live,” she explains. “This is what I think my idea of paradise is. There’s work in paradise, which sometimes we get confused.”

Listen: Detroit artist Halima Cassells gives a tour of her garden “paradise” and discusses her artistic inspiration.

Her house has been in her family for generations starting with her grandparents. Her father grew up in North End as a kid and kept a gardening journal that dates back to 1975. Some of the plants growing here have been passed down from one generation to the next, too.

Erik Paul Howard, Annie Scaramuzzino
Erik Paul Howard, Annie Scaramuzzino

Like her garden, Cassells’ artwork is seasonal and she works in a lot of different mediums. In the fall and winter, it’s mostly collages. In the spring and summer, she leans more toward hand-dyed installations and sculptural work.

Desmond Love
Desmond Love

The organic, do-it-yourself attitude she approaches life with has found its way into her artwork. She’s always looking for ways to bring natural, non-toxic materials into her art. It makes for an artistic practice that’s just as thoughtful as it is visually mesmerizing.

A few summers ago, she used her own fermentation vat to build installations out of cotton hand-dyed with indigo. She traveled with the vat and invited people to use it themselves, writing on her website that it was “subverting the notion of commerce with the ancient world’s hottest commodity.” Another one of her recent projects — the “Free Market of Detroit” — seeks similar ways to remove commerce from art and community sharing and crafting.

The collage work that she makes celebrates the very same nature that she cultivates in her garden. The results are lush, psychedelic pieces that feel like they are showing nature through a kaleidoscope.

Halima Cassells
Halima Cassells

Cassells’ ancestry informs her art practice, too. She traces her roots from Africa to the south and up to Detroit via the Great Migration.

“Just kind of connecting that back to stories of our ancestors — how things like braids, quilts, stories, maps and other artifacts help to say, ‘hey, this is how we get to freedom,’” says Cassells, “which ironically this is one of those points of freedom for a lot of people. So I’m here calling that forward.”

Related: Meet WDET’s Artists Next Door

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host of "In the Groove" on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.