Sydney G. James: Girl Raised in Detroit

Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit, United States
14 Apr 2023 - 03 Sep 2023

Sydney G. James, The Westside Johnsons, 2022. Acrylic on raw canvas. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Lamar Landers.

Sydney G. James, The Westside Johnsons, 2022. Acrylic on raw canvas. Courtesy of the artist. Photography by Lamar Landers.

The Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) announces the solo exhibition of Sydney G. James, Girl Raised in Detroit. Highlighting the career of the multi-faceted artistic visionary, the exhibition features new works pulling from James’ extensive career as a muralist, illustrator, cultural organizer, and champion of her hometown of Detroit. The artist encourages the viewer to join her in exploring the notion of freedom for Black people, including topics regarding the meaning and cultivation of safe space, community care, and protection. Presenting this line of inquiry through large-scale paintings and sculptural installations, James monumentalizes sources of resilience and perseverance. The exhibition will be on view at MOCAD from April 14, 2023 – September 4, 2023.

Heralded as one of the region’s prominent portrait artists, James’ exhibition pays homage to and redefines the relationship between artist and muse. The scale of their painted depictions only begins to signify the importance of the conversations the figures each stand for, as the artist provides a public platform as a soapbox to stand on. James works intimately and collaboratively with her family, friends, and contemporaries, shifting and redefining the power dynamic within these roles. The muses take us into deeper consideration with their personal stories, such as adding a layer of struggle in social constructs as a Black person of the LGBTQ community.

In considering safe spaces, James turns toward the domestic in her installation The Westside Johnsons. Recreating her grandparents’ 70’s styled living room within the museum walls invites viewers to feel enveloped by the hospitality the family portrayed in one of James’ largest paintings as one can sit on a couch to ruminate. Such an environment evokes the suggestion of apositive, loving, family structure intact. Considering James’ own role in the Detroit community, and further, the national community of Black artists bolstered by her own mural festival, BLKOUT Walls, her desire to create an example for others from the one she experienced rings clear.

Uplifting her muses also requires honesty about tribulations—both as individualized and common histories. Some have taken more time than others to find the support system and strength to be themselves, and therefore are shown holding masks that, made from repurposed clothing that harbor those histories, are rising reliefs from the surface of the paintings. These works are not stretched like in European and Western traditions. Framing the canvases, which are hung like African tapestries, are trims hiding the rough edges, not unlike hiding trauma behind a mask.

James’ most sculptural work separates her own likeness into four images hanging from the ceiling, each study more abstracted than the next. She bares her introspection and invites attendees to offer their own perspectives of the artist by setting up drawing easels and supplies in front of each of her self-portraits. Such vulnerability invites guests’ hands to decide what type of space they want to join James in making.




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