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Toby Millman

Artist Statement


Much of the work I included in my portfolio is from a series of prints and an installation as part of an ongoing investigation of places where I have lived and traveled over the past 10 years. Most are based on photographs I have taken around Detroit and Hamtramck (a municipality surrounded by the City of Detroit), Western Massachusetts and New York, focusing primarily on elements of city infrastructure and urbanized objects. The Porous Borders Poster Project is part of a collaborative piece I worked on with Andrew Thompson for the Porous Borders Festival, a two-day event that took place along the border between Detroit and Hamtramck in 2015. In this work, we invited viewers to create their own drawings, filling the blank space of printed billboards and signs with imagery they might prefer to see instead of advertising or commercial signage.

I take excerpts from my photographs, such as streetlamps, manholes or traffic cones, aiming to personify these inanimate objects as lone figures in elusive or partially rendered environments. As a resident of Hamtramck with a longstanding interest in cultural, historical and geopolitical issues affecting Palestinian society, this project began as a way for me to explore and integrate my interests in both locations. Despite the geographic distance and obvious differences between Detroit and Palestine, I see a lot of similarities. One is the way in which civic infrastructure, something that is often taken for granted, becomes politically weighted when it’s broken, neglected, or discriminatory by design. In the Palestinian West Bank, for example, cars travel along a two-tired road system: one for Palestinians with West Bank IDs and another for Israelis living in 1948 areas, occupied Jerusalem, or the settlements located throughout the West Bank. These roads are intertwined but separated by overpasses. One network is well lit, well paved and well signed while the other is dark, crumbling and navigated primarily through local knowledge. Detroiters too are all too familiar with inadequate roads and street lighting, which until recently were 40 percent nonfunctioning. Elements of my images also speak to issues of safety and security, calling into question the sincerity of the objects designed to protect people from harm. Safety and security are often cited reasons to justify policies that are designed to subjugate marginalized populations or financially benefit a select few.

These objects situated within our landscape transcend any one particular place. By redacting them from their environment, they become metaphors for people living under occupation or similar circumstances related to racism, public corruption or mismanagement. Through translating my images of otherwise unremarkable scenes into print, I hope to speak to the ways in which bodies of power use basic civic infrastructure to affect movement and exert control.

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