The identity artist

While most 18-year-olds are snapping selfies for Snapchat, Jamaican-born Ackeem Salmon is creating spectacular works of artistic photography that reflect a societal consciousness well beyond his years.  

Salmon immigrated to the United States nearly two years ago, and the artist uses brazen coloring and provocative poses to tell a sincerely vulnerable and shockingly beautiful tale of assimilation and identity.  You know when something is so good, it kind of freaks you out?  This is that.

And you know when something is so good when it earns its own 20-plus piece exhibition at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.  The Heart of Identity opens at the Wright Aug. 4 and runs through Oct. 30, and as the title suggests, the exhibition explores Salmon’s own identity in connection with the people he’s met and the things he’s experienced.  How many of us could figure who we were at 18, let alone create an 82-by-132-inch art piece with the calculations?

All his work originates from a photograph.  The photo is printed on canvass and stretched onto a wooden frame, then Salmon brings it to life using different materials like stones, sand, paint, leaves or fabrics.  

The exhibition will feature pieces that Salmon has created in the months since he and his family moved to Detroit.  His grandparents migrated ten years before, and the rest of the family thought it appropriate that everyone be together.  Salmon was born in Kingston and spent a significant amount of time in Spanish Town in the island’s St. Catherine parish.  He calls growing up in Jamaica “a very loving journey” and when asked who raised him, his response is authentically Jamaican.  “Everybody raised me.”


When the family settled, Salmon wanted to attend the Detroit School of Arts.  He says his family was just as supportive of this move as when they thought he’d pursue a career in science or medicine.  But then he picked up a camera and started creating art four years ago as part of a school assignment. (You could say it all, well, clicked.)  Soon Salmon was using magazines as inspiration and his relatives as models and tinkering with different lighting effects and posing.

He found a home at Detroit School of Arts, even being crowned prom king after only five months of attendance, as a bully-bait immigrant at that.  This speaks to Salmon’s energy and to the embracing culture of an arts-based institution.  

Salmon says he never experienced firsthand nor heard of any instances of bullying at the school.  But he did notice general differences between Jamaican and American culture, namely the way he says we Americans take a deliberate interest in separating ourselves into sub-cultures.

“I’m not used to hearing this stuff,” Salmon said.  “Our motto in Jamaica is ‘out of many one people.’”

Jamaicans have deep multicultural roots, including Caucasian, Chinese and East Indian ancestry. “When people see Jamaicans, or see the word ‘Jamaican’ they always think of the stereotypical view: dark skin, dreadlocks, marijuana, but it’s more than that.”

Salmon says racial distinctions don’t matter as they do here.  He says, “If you’re born in Jamaica, you’re Jamaican – that’s it.”

He’s political, but it doesn’t seem deliberate, almost an accidental symptom of his social awareness and compassion.  Salmon expresses disgust at the recent shooting at Orlando’s Pulse Nightclub, as well as the augmenting tension between police officers and black men.  He keeps an inquisitive eye on what’s going on around him, and his work both reflects and relies on those observations.  The teenage photographer exhibits the eccentricity typical of artists, but it isn’t frenzied, it feels composed and mature, wise even.

“He really knows what he wants and he’s very focused.  He’s really driven so it makes it easier because I don’t have to push,” said Jennifer Evans, assistant curator at Wright.  “I don’t have to draw it out of him; he already has a million ideas and a million different things that he’s considering all the time,” she added.  

Evans curates the museum’s Contemporary Artist Program, which is designed to afford the opportunity for local and emerging artists to display their work in one of the museum’s galleries for a few months.  The museum does quarterly reviews of work that comes in through email or of artists they discover.  Salmon was included in one of those reviews and at the beginning of the year, Evans and the team at the Wright decided to add Salmon to the 2016 calendar.  

Salmon is making Evans’ job way too easy.  From the layout of the room to the font for the labels, Evans said, “Ackeem has really been steering the ship,” and that “his work is so stunning and beautiful and amazing, it doesn’t need a lot to surround it.  It doesn’t need a lot of curating to connect with people that come and see it.”

That telekinetic energy is exactly what Salmon is hoping for.  Along with poetry and theatre, he also has a special appreciation for dance.  Salmon says he loves how dancers are able to connect without words to the music and to the audience, and he pushes his art to have that same sincerity and reach.  

Evans has no doubt in the exhibition’s impact and says she’s sure that it’ll open numerous doors for Salmon — though he's hardly starving for recognition.  Since coming to America, Salmon estimates that’s he won at least 15 awards and competitions, including nabbing the gold medal in the NAACP ACT-SO competition in Philadelphia for photography.

“I enter every single competition I can get my hands on,” Salmon said.

He’s also been featured in The Detroit News and on Detroit Public Television.  And Cintron (the energy drink guys) commissioned Salmon to design artwork to be used at their Pink Polo event, an annual fundraiser to benefit breast cancer research, in Cape Town, South Africa.   

The College for Creative Studies is where Salmon currently hangs out.  Next year he hopes to study abroad in France at the Paris College of Art.  The French language and culture has always been a particular passion of Salmon’s.  He studied French for six years, including a few months of advanced study at the Alliance Franҫaise de la Jamaïque (the French embassy in Jamaica).  And after Paris?  He wants to be a world-renowned artist with work in all the major museums – and he wants to be Google-able and have a Wikipedia page that pops right up when you type in his name.  

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