Innocence, Aspiration, and Global Automobility

Through his group, the Wire-Car Auto Workers Association of Detroit (WAWAD), Chido Johnson is teaching people in the Motor City how to make their own wire-cars—a form of sculpture and artistic creativity he learned growing up in Zimbabwe and Zambia. Johnson, who now lives in Detroit and is an Associate Professor and Section Chair for Sculpture at the College for Creative Studies, began working with wire cars in his own art work as part of a Kresge Arts Fellowship in 2009, designing a pink 1967 Cadillac to use in a film. Part of that project also entailed teaching the art of wire car construction in artist organizations, schools, universities, and community centers across the city. That year, Johnson organized a wire car cruise on Woodward Avenue in front of the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) (echoing the Woodward “Dream Cruise” that takes place every August in the suburban stretches of Woodward Avenue, displaying fancy cars on and alongside the road). Since 2009, the project has solidified through the organization of WAWAD, and Johnson continues to hold workshops and cruises throughout metro Detroit.

Wire cars are not a phenomenon unique to Zimbabwe or Zambia. The toys are made by children all across the continent—cobbled together from available materials, from discarded aluminum cans, to metal wire, to blocks of wood. As children craft these toys and push them down the street, they engage in an artistic endeavor—childhood crafts and sculpture that expresses the individuality and creativity of the maker. But these cars also represent participation in a larger culture of automobility. Young boys and girls push tires or hoops through the street with sticks, fashion make-believe vehicles to play “driver”, and sit in the front seat of vehicles, pretending to steer the car through congested city streets.

Such automobile play is not new. These toy cars have gained international attention in recent years—they are now frequently found in the gift shops of art museums and fair trade/global crafts sellers, including the chain store “World Market”. However, they grow out of a much older tradition of child’s play that dates back to at least the 1930s in places like Ghana, where motor vehicles had been moving goods and passengers since the first decades of the 20th century. Elderly men I interviewed in Ghana remembered the admiration they felt as children for vehicles that entered their villages, but also the men who drove them. Both the vehicle and the driver represented a worldly cosmopolitanism that was associated both with their mastery of imported technology, but also of their physical mobility—their constant travel as auto-mobile individuals. Young boys played driver while dreaming of a life of respectability as a worker and entrepreneur. They dreamed of driving their own vehicle, but that vehicle would not be a family car. Rather, it would be a big, wooden-sided truck, which carried goods and passengers within and outside of the country. This form of driving required expertise and skill, and it served as a path to respectability and modernity among young boys who were often unable to follow conventional pathways laid out through western education. These young boys were not merely playing games, they were imagining work and movement in important ways.

boy with toy car copy

 In “bringing a folk art tradition based on cars from the other side of the world to the Motor City”, Johnson highlights this cosmopolitanism. Johnson’s cosmopolitan “folk art” suggests the truly global reach of automobility and automobile technology. On the one hand, this African iteration of automobility forces us, as Westerners, to confront assumptions and stereotypes about technology on the African continent. MetroTimes reporter Lee DeVito captured this assumption perfectly when he asked Johnson: “Were there cars in Zimbabwe and Zambia?” But Johnson’s answer suggests that Detroit and Zimbabwe are not nearly as different as the question implied: “In Zambia, it was a time—this was in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—it was economically struggling. There were definitely no toys. So the older kids would make wire-cars. […] I remember growing up in that time, It was hard economically, but people made things last. You’d be amazed. You’d see a radio that was barely put together because you can’t find parts. That’s the kind of connection I felt here in Detroit as well. It’s a lot of ingenuity—it’s not the quick fix. It’s not like, ‘What’s that piece I need?’ It’s more like, ‘How can I make this work?’” Johnson’s classes throughout the metro area and around the world have highlighted the global nature of automobility, including examples from Yemen and Germany, and Johnson argues that “bringing that practice back here seems very symbolic, and shows that global connectedness. We’re more similar than different.”

And yet, we also have to be careful. As Clapperton Mavhunga’s Transient Workspaces: Technologies of Everyday Innovation in Zimbabwe argues, we often assume that global technologies like the automobile rolled onto foreign shores and into local communities, replacing local knowledge and practices with the presumed superiority of industrial machinery and manufacturing. We also assume that those objects imply particular practices or ideologies or cultures that are part and parcel of technological use. In the case of the automobile, the American notion of automobility is attached to the private car or family car, which is itself a symbol of the democratizing potential of the industrial golden age, the rise of the middle class (and its attendant suburban house with a white picket fence, 2 kids and a dog), and the freedom of movement through the seemingly endless miles of American interstates, crossing the country through the miracle of technology. Suburban sprawl, drive-in movie theaters and restaurants, and the interstate system itself are all physical, if declining, reminders of the golden age of the automobile and the promise that it held in the minds of many Americans. But Mavhunga reminds us that these technologies did not come in as steam rollers or replacements. Rather, they were integrated into preexisting systems of technological knowledge and practice. It stands to reason that what automobility means—the significance of motor transport technology in the social, cultural, economic, and political lives of local populations—should vary in a way that reflects cultural specificity.

Mavhunga suggests that motor vehicles in Zimbabwe did not bring mobility to vaShona and maTshangana populations in colonial Zimbabwe. African lives in the region were already highly mobile, structured by the practices of hunting and later migrant labor. Mavhunga argues that mobility was not only physical movement, but it was also a site of innovation—a transient workspace where Africans developed and refined technological knowledge and practice. And technology was not merely the object itself—produced in a workshop or a factory—but also the institutions, knowledge, skills, and practices that made innovation possible. Automobiles were a new form of technology, introduced in the early part of the 20th century, but they were not the only mobile technologies available for Africans. Even when motor vehicles arrived, they were primarily owned by white colonial settlers, administrators and tourists, who used the vehicles to “explore” the territory then known as Southern Rhodesia (Zambia was known as Northern Rhodesia; both changed their names at independence). This does not necessarily paint a clear picture for us of what meaning young boys instilled in their wire cars. Johnson himself suggests that the wire cars evoked not the idea of getting from A to B, but the pleasure of riding itself…”the stuff in between” (but as a relatively privileged white child growing up in Zimbabwe and Zambia, his experience may also have been different from other children on the continent). Regardless, Mavhunga’s point pushes us to acknowledge that this meaning might be very different from our own—just as the aspirations of young Ghanaian boys “driving” with a fake steering wheel might be quite different from American children playing with Matchbox™ cars. Johnson’s classes open up conversation about this meaning—or at least they provide a space where such conversation could take place. Global automobility in the Motor City.

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