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Detroit trans artist Bakpak Durden on making their mark via many mediums

Bakpak Durden

Murals by Bakpak Durden that glaze through the streets of Russell, Brush, and Hazelwood -- covering a Detroit vs. Everybody store, the Brush Street Viaduct, and LGBT Detroit -- have illuminated the city.

A self-taught interdisciplinary artist, Durden began their work years ago, making small pieces out of items found around the house and selling them to the two people who loved them most.

“I used to make these pillows out of construction paper, stapled together for my parents...then I would draw and write their favorite things on it and stuff it with tissue and then sell it back to them. They paid for it. So that was easy,” Durden said.

A childhood surrounded by creatives

With a family full of creatives, Durden’s childhood was influenced by collectors and visual artists.

“My grandmother was a seamstress and a world traveler. And she would collect a bunch of art and statues and pretty much everything from all over the world. So, I was surrounded by that and surrounded by everything she made and made us wear. And my mom was an illustrator and painter,” Durden said.

The decision to begin oil painting

To name a few skills, Durden is an illustrator, tattoo artist, hair stylist and entrepreneur. And they may be a prolific muralist now, but that wasn’t always the case.

“It wasn't until I started working with Sydney James, assisting her on murals and just learning all of her techniques and how she scales up her illustrations in her paintings,” Durden said. “I was like, ‘I don't want to paint.’ And then I was bored enough one day and I did it and it made sense. So they both started at the same time, painting studio and painting mural.”

Mental health and identity

Credit Bakpak Durden
Bakpak Durden's ''Not This Again'' transitions from color to monochrome to illustrate, for them, what it feels like to deal with depression.

"Not This Again," a self-portrait, as well as other works by Durden, bring forth themes of mental health and neurodiversity in their work.

“I was making a shift from painting other people to painting myself more. I’m the narrative that I know the best and the most, and I feel like I have the privilege to tell the history of,” Durden said. “In [Not This Again], it was basically a mental health crisis. It was the symbolic nature of falling into depression. I’m falling through the triangle because it's a quick fall into depression but a long climb out of it. You're going from a spectrum of colors into monochromatic black and white space.”

Beyond mental health, Bakpak Durden focuses on black, trans and queer visibility, combining art and storytelling.

“It's so hard to talk about it, especially because everyone's experience is different. So, through therapy nowadays, I'm learning to understand that visual medium is my language, and that's how I can explain it better than my words can, because they often fail me,” Durden said.

“What does it mean to build the right community?”

Detroit’s creative profile has become increasingly high in recent years. This may sound like a good thing, but “it can lead to elitism and artists relying on oppressive structures to validate their work,” Durden said. As the owner of Starving Artist LLC, the idea is to “uplift artists where they're at, including myself, including my partner, including my friends, and get us to where we need to be without the necessity of elite structures that have been placed upon us.”

And with all the dynamic work Durden creates, there’s no way it stops there.

“I'm going to keep making art and keep being a good person," Durden said. "I'm going to keep building community with folks that want to build community and be in relation to the things that are shaking out in the world. And if you miss it, then that's your fault.” 

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Chantell Phillips.

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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