An Eye-Opening Trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts

By Ahmad Putra Karunia

On March 2, Dr. Stephen Pasqualina and students in his ENL 3170: Transnational Modernisms course visited the Detroit Institute of Arts to study Diego Rivera’s iconic Detroit Industry murals (1932/33). Below is a reflection by Ahmad Putra Karunia on his experience at the DIA.

“An eye-opening experience”: this statement best describes my visit to the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), which was one of the most amazing field-trip experiences of my life. While I do not have a great appreciation for art in general, seeing Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals in person left me in awe. Even though Dr. Pasqualina provided us with a thorough description and virtual walkthrough of the murals ahead of our visit, experiencing the actual space of Rivera Court—and how massive it is—was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Caption: A view of the South Wall of Rivera Court. Photo by Ahmad Putra Karunia.

I was very impressed with the details and commitments of Diego Rivera, to not only capture the auto industry of Detroit but to complete the project despite the many critiques he faced while in Detroit in the 1930s. I certainly believed that he used every single penny of the $10,000 funding that he received to create these outstanding murals. Regarding the artwork itself, I found that Rivera points out the prominent distinction of both valuable and destructive aspects of human intelligence, as described by the DIA: “The murals assert the benefits of industrial processes, but warns of their destructive side effects. The aviation industry produces planes for war as well as for travel. Scientific discoveries allow us to fight disease—and create poison gases.” In other words, human intelligence has certainly shaped civilizations, whether that entails applying our abilities for improvements or bringing catastrophe and chaos into the future. Detroit, as one of the most advanced technological manufacturing cities in world history, plays a huge role in this matter; Detroit, of course, was one of the most crucial manufacturing cities for the U.S. during WWII, largely due to the Ford Motor company led by Henry Ford (who Rivera admired greatly, despite their political disagreements).

Caption: A view of the West Wall of Rivera Court, which depicts aviation as both life-affirming and destructive. Photo by Ahmad Putra Karunia.

Rivera depicts numerous elements in these murals, from spiritual and political phenomena to the rise of civilizations and the span of life cycles. The subjects of the murals are much more complex than just the Detroit auto industry. As we stepped inside Rivera court, a docent by the name of Linda Cadariu provided us with descriptions of the paintings, including the presence of multiple races represented by enormous white, red, black, and yellow figures, all of them benefiting from the Earth’s natural resources. Rivera’s Detroit Industry represents an enormous sweep of human creation, innovation, and destruction.

Caption: A view of the North Wall of Rivera Court. Photo by Ahmad Putra Karunia.

Another amazing experience that I had during our DIA trip was seeing an actual mummy, along with X-Ray photos of the human skeleton and descriptions of the Egyptian beliefs that the human soul can live eternally within it. Well, I had very mixed feelings: I was creeped out and amazed at the same time, especially since I had only seen a mummy in Hollywood movies such as Indiana Jones and National Treasure. Other highlights included sculptures of Jesus Christ from different parts of Europe (Italy and Bavaria), the Nightmare painting by Henry Fuseli, and Asian exhibits featuring rugs and beautiful handmade ceramics from Lahore, Korea, and China.

Caption: Dr. Pasqualina (center, back row) and students in his Transnational Modernisms course pose in front of the South Wall of Rivera Court. Ahmad Putra Karunia pictured second to the right (in hat and hoodie).

Whether you are passionate about art or not (I certainly was not until this trip), I would highly recommend that everyone visit the Detroit Institute of Arts. I feel very lucky and honored to have been part of the field trip with all my amazing classmates and Professor Pasqualina. This was truly the best field trip I have ever been on—no cap!

Ahmad Putra Karunia is a junior majoring in Political Science at the University of Detroit Mercy.

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