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Detroit artist Sydney James celebrates Black women, Detroit through her work

Posted at 5:40 AM, Feb 11, 2021

DETROIT (WXYZ) — “Malcolm X said the Black woman is the most oppressed person in this country, and that has not changed," Detroit artist Sydney James said, standing in front of the 8,000 square-foot western wall of the Chroma building she and her team transformed this fall.

When she was commissioned to create a mural to cover the empty wall, James referenced a familiar scene; Vermeer's 17th-century oil on canvas "Girl With the Pearl Earring."

She used the iconic painting as a vehicle to tell a different story; one she said is not told often enough.

“We’re too loud, our booties are too big, our lips are too big. Yep. All of that. And I want to put all of that as big as I can on a wall," she said. "Because all of those things are not negative things at all but we’re treated like they are.”

James' mural tells a Detroit story; at the center of it is a proud Black woman sporting earrings with the Old English 'D,' synonymous with the Motor City.

“This is a strong woman, this is a Detroit woman. She has to get it done no matter what," James said of the woman depicted in the mural.

The piece is appropriately called "Girl With the D Earring"

“Oh that looks familiar but it’s not how I know it," James said of the Vermeer inspiration. "I do that because compositionally I want the viewers to feel familiar.”

James also included an ode to local businesses in the mural, many now closed; the names of which are displayed on the woman's clothing. James did that she said, to represent the businesses that made the neighborhood what it is.

Like the woman in the mural, James too is a product of Detroit.

“I first picked up a pencil, brush when I was three-years-old and I probably knew I was going to be a professional artist at nine," she said. “Cass Tech had a stellar commercial arts program. I graduated CCS in 2001 out of their commercial art program.”

James, who's also worked in the corporate world, said her parents were very supportive of her art growing up.

"I was allowed to paint on my clothes. I was allowed to paint on my shoes," she said.

Painting on shoes is something she's still doing now, sort of. During the month of February James is partnering with Vans to create custom designed shoes with her artwork on them.

Vans is also working with Detroit artist Tony Whlgn and two artists from the Bay Area on this project James said, which showcases four different shoes by four different Black artists.

"Vans will be donating $40,000 to the Black Arts Future Fund - an organization that uplifts and enhances the future of Black arts and culture. This donation will fund granting efforts to small and community-based Black arts organizations across the country," a release about the partnership said.

James didn't start creating larger scale murals until a little later in her career; she's been a professional artist now for about two decades.

It was the re-creation of a monument to Malice Greece she said, that brought her out of a dark place during the pandemic. The original monument to Green was destroyed.

“It’s crazy that tragedy is what pulled me out of my hole because like many families I suffered a lot of losses during COVID," James told Action News.

Creating the monument was emotional and painful for James and her team. They crowd-sourced the money to fund the project in a matter of days.

In 1992, two white Detroit police officers in plain clothes beat 35-year-old Malice Green to death on the city's west side.

Green is depicted in the mural, which sits on the side of the Hamilton-Tucker gallery which James co-owns; he's holding a scroll, where James added the names of hundreds of other people, all Black and Brown, also killed by police.

“That’s only about a year-and-a-half worth of names. And it was outdated the day after we completed the wall," she said.

It was about six years ago that James really started focusing on racism and police brutality in her artwork.

"It probably started with Michael Brown but it didn’t really drive home until Sandra Bland. And then the countless other Black women that were also affected by police brutality.”

"If the Black woman can get any type of recourse, every other woman will too. Every other person will," she said.

As far as her career masterpiece, she said she hasn't made it yet.

“I think actually my masterpiece won’t be a piece of art. I think my masterpiece will be the collective I build," speaking about the other artists she works with and the aspiring artists she mentors.

James said one day she'd like to open an art institute for kids in Detroit.

“Forget trying to be at somebody else’s table," James said. "Make your own table. Sit on the floor if you have to, it might be more comfortable.