Art professor explores intersection of power, labor and consumerism


Growing up, Rebekah Modrak’s family dinners were set against the soundtrack of her firefighter father’s radio, the cries of emergencies interwoven with the sounds of clanging forks and hungry bites.

Her father had been active in pro-union work throughout his life. He was forced to leave graduate school because of his involvement with a Students for a Democratic Society chapter, and was fired from a job as a carpenter’s apprentice after he tried to start a union.

“I grew up hearing these stories and understanding that this was what you did — you spoke up when you saw exploitation of power, whether or not there was personal consequence,” Modrak said.

Rebekah Modrak is a professor of art and design at U-M.
Rebekah Modrak, a professor of art and design, explores the intersections of power, labor and consumerism to examine the rights of communities and workers in society. Her work is part of a current exhibition at the Stamps Gallery. (Photo by Roger Hart, Michigan Photography)

Years later, Modrak, a professor of art and design at the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, is still exploring the intersections between power, labor and consumerism to examine the rights of communities and workers in society.

She creates artistic work “around how representation evokes power.” Often, Modrak says, she plays in “the terrain of commerce in order to expose messages or open up counter-narratives.”

For one of her projects, Modrak drew inspiration from a news article about Best Made Co., a New York-based business that sells $368 axes and claims they’re a “company that finds meaning through making the best things (they) possibly can.”

“I thought of the bodily risks my father took at work and tried to imagine a company painting stripes on his fire coat or his ax or hose and selling it to a wealthy, white-collar guy so he could feel connected to physical labor,” Modrak said.

“I watched Best Made’s brand video, with the American flags and the reference to the pioneer, the aggressive manliness and the pretension of this being about ‘labor.’ And these things just sat there in the back of my mind.”

Modrak eventually created “Re Made Co,” a satirical version of the company’s brand video, website and social media accounts that featured toilet plungers instead of axes.

“Brand merchandising is empty rhetoric,” Modrak said. “It’s there to persuade people to purchase something. It’s a con. When you’re distracted by this, you miss out on any real connection that might be possible.

“It also falsely suggests that identity construction is as easy as simply pulling out your credit card and making a purchase — as opposed to confronting how difficult it is to swing a heavy ax for eight hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. That’s when you learn about labor and develop compassion for people who work, and want to advocate for better working conditions.”

In another, more recent, net-based project titled “Rethink Shinola,” Modrak draws on witnessing the influx of press when white-owned businesses opened in Detroit in the late 2000s. The public narrative centered on how white people were supposedly saving Detroit.

She observed that Shinola — a Detroit-based company that produces luxury products like watches, bicycles, leather goods and other objects — used images of black assembly line workers in their marketing. These shots were juxtaposed against photos of the company’s white leadership without work smocks.

“I wrote a book about photo history, theory and practice, and a lot of this is focused on the power dynamics of images — how photography has, since its inception, been a tool used by those in power to control the representations, and therefore the mobility and agency, of those who are not in power,” Modrak said.

“This Texas-based company waltzed into Detroit with all their venture capital money and assumed the name Detroit and 50 years of resilience that comes with living with few services or infrastructure for their branding. The black people imaged in their ads were not the owners of the company. They did not control these images.”

Shining a light on how economic development can lead to exploitation, Modrak created “Rethink Shinola,” an online artwork that comprises multiple elements, including a re-enactment of a presentation that former company president Jacques Panis gave at U-M, and a video where her team of animators drew colonial hats onto Panis and other company executives.

Although brand messaging can impact people’s lives and perceptions of identity in major ways, a lack of financial resources and her parents’ beliefs gave Modrak a different lens through which to view life.

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“My parents saw brand consciousness and coveting brands as snobbishness,” Modrak said, adding that her upbringing did not encourage her to aspire to own things.

“I see brands like Best Made Co. — who try to create a ‘community’ or a following by selling a brand identity — as cultish behavior, both in imposing this control and in the emptiness of filling one’s self with brand projections.”

Modrak’s work “Rethink Shinola” is part of “Border Control: Traversing Horizons in Media Practice,” an exhibition on view at the U-M Stamps Gallery, 201 Division St., until Nov. 10. The Stamps Gallery is free and open to the public 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. It is open until 7 p.m. Fridays.


What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?

Last autumn, my wearable-art students constructed gladiator costumes out of soft, cuddly Snuggies. On the frosty December last day of class, nine Snuggified gladiators, outfitted with shields, swords and helmets, sprinted down the tunnel and into the Big House for a remarkable battle.

What can’t you live without?

My children, Lucy and Oscar.

Name your favorite spot on campus.

The Clements Library.

What inspires you?

People like Bill Wylie-Kellermann and Jamon Jordan, who work against the tide of development and gentrification in Detroit.

What are you currently reading?

Albert Woodfox’s “Solitary.”

Who had the greatest influence on your career path?

Two people. My graduate adviser, Adrienne Salinger, who paid attention and never let up with questions that got to the heart of what mattered. And former Stamps Dean Bryan Rogers, who didn’t care about external validation, and who encouraged us to get into trouble and pursue our interests outside of traditional silos.


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