Sydney James’ murals bring beauty, empowerment and social justice to spaces from Detroit to Ghana
By Jamie Ludwig
Featured photography by Lamar Landers
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in the closure of Detroit’s galleries and museums, but there’s one place where locals can still safely enjoy art and celebrate community: our city’s streets.
Sydney G. James knows this well. Through her vivid, gorgeous portraits of black women, the award-winning illustrator and mural artist has brought beauty, social justice and empowerment to outdoor spaces in Detroit and around the globe, from New Orleans to Honolulu to Accra, Ghana.
The 40-year-old CCS graduate started her career in advertising but made the switch to fine art after a job on the ABC Family show “Lincoln Heights” (she was hired to produce the works that one of the characters — an aspiring artist — “created” on the show).
On a visit back to Detroit, James learned that her friend, artist and community advocate Halima Cassells, was working to transform vacant lots into community gardens, and she was inspired. Working with Detroit artists, James built an outdoor art park in the Conant Gardens neighborhood where she was raised. “We could paint whatever we wanted, and we just erected the structures from the ground up,” she says. “That was my introduction into the street art world.”
In 2011 James moved back home, and after painting her first wall in 2014 — a portrait of Detroit cult musician Sixto Rodriguez on a building in the Grand River Creative Corridor — she fell in love with making murals. Now, Detroiters can see her work in different corners of the city, from Woodbridge and Eastern Market to MOCAD and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.
James, who’s been involved with a variety of local arts initiatives, has racked up accolades for her work: She received a Kresge Fellowship in 2017, and this February was presented with the Alain Locke Recognition Award by the Friends of African and African American Art (FAAAA) at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
James depicts black women “as they are,” says Valerie Mercer, curator and department head of African American Art at the DIA. “Her expressive vision is consistently as honest as she is when she speaks about how inspirational Detroit and its people are for her work.”
The overarching concept behind James’ work is “Appropriated Not Appreciated,” a theme informed by the #SayHerName campaign (which was launched in 2014 and seeks to bring awareness and justice to black women who’ve been brutalized by police) and her observations of how black women’s contributions to society, including their influence on fashion and pop culture, often go ignored. “Appropriation is really erasure,” says James. “We’re always ahead of the trend. We are the trend, but then we’re left far behind once the trend catches on.”
She also intends to provoke uncomfortable conversations to spark social change. In a piece created for her first solo exhibition at Playground Detroit last fall, she painted a nude self-portrait on a doormat and placed it at the bottom of a staircase, where people could either bypass it or walk on it. Though her body may appear bare and vulnerable, the expression on her face defies anyone who would “step on” or mistreat her or any other woman.
After Michigan’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, James felt unable to create for weeks. Eventually, she began drawing again, but she felt something was missing. “What I didn’t realize until this pandemic is that mural painting is kind of an addiction for me,” she says.
Where can a muralist paint while sheltering-in-place? In James’ case, across her garage in Conant Gardens. Her latest piece starts with a portrait of a woman wearing a T-shirt featuring the cover art of “Fan-Tas-Tic Vol. 1,” the debut recording by legendary hip-hop trio Slum Village, whose members also grew up in the neighborhood. James says that while she could typically produce a mural within days, she’s taking her time and staying open to where her imagination might take her. “For the first time in my career, there is no ‘assignment’ or deadline I have to meet,” she says. “By the end of quarantine, whatever it evolves to will be the finale.”
No matter her medium, James’ purpose remains the same. “I realized the act of me doing this is just as or more important than what I’m actually painting,” she says. “The average person might not ever go to a gallery in their life because [they think] ‘art is for the elite.’ That’s how the average person views art: ‘It’s not for me.’”
She recalls a day back in 2016 when she was painting the top part of “Blacklist,” her mural in Eastern Market, and the look on a little girl’s face as she walked by with her mother. “Seeing somebody up high — no matter what they’re doing — there are so many messages in that,” says James. “Like, ‘She climbed that scaffolding. She was up there high. She was doing it by herself. She wasn’t scared.’ Maybe this could encourage people to be fearless.”