Sydney G. Jamesâ€™ art is a call to action: to see Blackness â€” especially Black women; to remember that Black people too are free; and to know that Black lives are complex, resplendent and worthy.
Her nearly 20-year career runs the gamut. Sheâ€™s both a commercial and fine artist, elevating the unique strengths and struggles that Black women face. In the past five years though, her notoriety has exploded due to her commanding public murals found in Detroit and across the globe. If youâ€™re a Detroiter, itâ€™s nearly certain that youâ€™ve seen her work. If youâ€™re unsure about that, go — especially now — to Eastern Market and see her most prominent work to date from the series â€œAppropriated Not Appreciated.â€
Titled â€œBlack List,â€ it presents a Black woman holding up a protest sign thatâ€™s been inscribed with a poem by Scheherazade Washington Parrish: â€œThe Definitive List of Everything That Will Keep You Safe As A Black
Woman Being In America.â€ The list is blank.
That Black bodies remain under attack is part of the inspiration for her latest work-in-progress, a mural that will grace the side of the gallery she co-owns in Highland Park. Still untitled, sheâ€™s calling it the â€œMalice Green Monument Muralâ€ for now, named after a man best known for how he died.
Malice Green was unarmed when he was killed by Detroit police officers in plainclothes in 1992, not long after Los Angeles erupted in protests over the beating of Rodney King. Memorialized previously in a now-demolished mural painted by artist Bennie White, Jr., Greenâ€™s death sparked outrage in Detroit and around the country.
James is determined that we remember that Black Detroiters demanded justice for Greenâ€™s murder. Not simply because they marched, but because their efforts resulted in the firing of all four officers involved and a conviction for two, Walter Budzyn and Larry Nevers.
Jamesâ€™ crowdfunding campaign to fund the mural reached its goal in less than a day. Before the mural is unveiled on June 19 in honor of Juneteenth, she took time to speak with Detour about restoring a personal symbol of justice and her plan for a mural thatâ€™s more rallying cry than static memorial.
Detour: How has the way you define your work changed from the time you started to now?
When a personâ€™s an artist, especially when they choose to be a fine artist, theyâ€™re constantly in search of their why. My why sparked after Sandra Bland, but it really came after the young woman got attacked by that cop at a pool party in Texas. Thatâ€™s when my work evolved from a focus on Blackness to Blackness as a woman. And itâ€™s still changing because I vowed not to even focus on men. Men could be present in my work, but they would never be the focal point until my choosing.
So why a memorial to Malice Green now?
I donâ€™t do tribute murals; I donâ€™t do memorial murals. Thatâ€™s not a practice that I do for a multitude of reasons. But once George Floyd was murdered, an article about the Malice Green case came up. It made mention of the original mural by Bennie White, Jr., that I had no idea had been destroyed. I always took comfort knowing that it was there. It was important that it was there because it was a reminder of a time when we got justice.
So, Iâ€™m painting Malice Green because he became a symbol and we need that symbol. Heâ€™ll be painted like a monument, holding a scroll flying off into the wind. The scroll will contain all of the names of Black people lynched by police since 1979, the year I was born. Iâ€™m making it personal to me, but Iâ€™m also making it personal to us. We need an ever-present reminder that we do not accept this shit at all. And weâ€™re tired, but we ainâ€™t weak.
Your work is often about Black women and our unique struggles in America. But this piece prominently centers a man and there are protests from the streets to Facebook right now lifting Black men and boys as the only black bodies in danger. What do you say to that?
Thatâ€™s why I started â€œAppropriated Not Appreciated.â€ My theory stemmed from the #SayHerName movement. And thatâ€™s why I really, up until this Malice Green piece, I havenâ€™t painted men in years. Even in the protests now, I rarely see a sign with the womenâ€™s names. Itâ€™s always the menâ€™s names. But it is a lot of us, too. Like the Breonnas, the Aiyanas — she was only seven — The Sandras.
The Shaâ€™Teinas, who just last week was assaulted by Ypsilanti police.
Oh, see, I forgot about that one. And, itâ€™s been so much daily over the past month, we canâ€™t even remember all the names. We have to study to know all of the names.
Youâ€™re unveiling the Malice Green mural on Juneteenth. Why?
I think itâ€™s the perfect date to celebrate the best we can around the piece. Now, I donâ€™t want the piece to be worshipped. I donâ€™t want myself to be worshipped even though Iâ€™m painting it, because itâ€™s not about me at all. Itâ€™s about us and our community, and I want to give it on Juneteenth because thatâ€™s the day we found out we were free. I want to remind everybody we are still free, and we will continue to fight for our freedoms the best way we can.
What emotions come up as you do this work? Does this time feel surreal?
Yes. My chest hurts now, even having this interview. Iâ€™m definitely mentally preparing because I know this is going to be so mentally tasking, itâ€™s going to make the physical tasking part a little bit worse. Painting murals is already a physically tasking job. It looks glorious, and we make it look glorious, and itâ€™s probably glorious while weâ€™re actually working on it, but once we stop and sit down, our bodies literally attack. I imagine itâ€™ll be way more painful just doing this particular one because of why weâ€™re doing it, but this is one of those things I just felt compelled to do.
James and her team of assistant artists, Bakpak Durden, Ijania Cortez and Cyrah Powers, will officially unveil the forthcoming mural on June 19, 2020 at the Hamilton Tucker Gallery in Highland Park, co-owned by James and fellow artists Breâ€™Ann White and Rayshard Tucker.
The interview was lightly edited for length and clarity.
Portrait of James by Lamar Landers.
Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter with a heart for people and their stories. A WDET Storymakers Fellow, she also writes for nonprofits and individuals through her small business Keen Composition.