Already famous for her astonishing murals and paintings rendered in the public spaces of her native Detroit, Sydney G. James shows no signs of halting her kinetic momentum. Her upcoming solo exhibition, Girl Raised in Detroit, currently showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, continues to explode the notions of space, dimension, and what it means to be a body in a space that is intentionally created and composed to witness it.
In works that blend mural, interior design, polemic and generational inheritance, James explores how a body caught in the crossroads of intersectionality - how to navigate culture and space as a woman, as a person of colour, and as an artist - and how that body can claim agency through an intimate and radical engagement with art.

Here, we share her work curating cultural safe spaces, and how they inform how she approaches the relationship between artist and viewer, artwork and gaze. We chat about the importance of the personal in creativity, and how a multitude of spaces - familial, local, institutional, and cultural - all have their part to play in the curation and protection of creativity, and the bodies that experience it.
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(Work in progress) The Cozy Outlier, 2023
In the painting Serving Tee Liberation (2023) the reclining figure wears a shirt embossed with the statement: “I reclaim sovereignty over my body.” It’s incredibly powerful – how does your art help you reclaim bodily sovereignty, or how do you imagine it achieves this for its viewers?
Serving Tee was actually the catalyst for most of this body of work. I originally painted it as a mural down in Miami during Basel for a Mural festival, in December 2021. The design was much simpler but just as bold. I was giving a nod to a dear friend and Vanguard Collective co-founder, Scheherazade W. Parrish who created Serving Tee as a social media activation during Black History Month. My tee paid homage to Darryl “Cornbread” McCray (the first graffiti writer noted in modern history.) It took me 6 days to complete. 2 days later it was destroyed by vandals. They even covered up my name. (I never made it public because I didn’t want to make the (Insert expletive) famous. And honestly, I didn’t want to become quote unquote famous for being quote unquote victimised. I was thinking to myself, “Damn! The Black Woman’s body isn’t safe even in a  pretend space?! Out of my anger, hurt, and utter confusion, I birthed the idea to recreate and evolve my murals that no longer exist into large pieces that would be shown in a museum. At the time I had no clue how I was even going to make it happen but 2 weeks later I received an email that I was nominated by Adrian Hartfield to apply to ISCP residency based out of Brooklyn, NY. If awarded the residency, I’d get a solo show at MOCAD. I applied and a couple of weeks later, I received the residency in which I lived in New York from  April 1, 2022-July 1, 2022. So full circle, this entire exhibit Girl Raised in Detroit is a reclamation of my autonomy.
Your mentee Bakpak Durden also features as the subject of your painting Bereavement? (2023). What made you choose to use family, friends and here, artistic mentors, as your artistic subjects? Does it augment the relationship you have to a work when its subject is so close to you?
I use my family and friends because I get very personal with my work. Every piece has its own why that connects to the next piece and so on and so forth. I believe that the more the work is personal to me the artist, the more the work will feel personal to the viewer.
What does the term safe space mean to you, as one you focus on quite strongly in the exhibition? This obviously will have connotations for the general viewer in terms of cultural discourse, but in work so literally focused on the viewer being spatially implicated, how does this affect how we should approach your use of the term?
When I refer to “safe space(s),” I’m speaking beyond just body autonomy, I’m referring to mentally, emotionally, as well as physically. A space where I don’t have to worry about my art being destroyed, being in institutions that are poised as “safe“ but microaggressions such as misgendering, tokenising BIPOC, and snarky insensitive phrases are the norm. A safe space is a dream many of us are collectively working to realise. A safe space should be compassionate and understanding.
Your sculptural installations in The Westside Johnsons are modelled on your grandparents’ home from the 1970’s, as I understand? This is a bold but very intimate creative decision, what did your grandparents, and the domestic space of their home, mean to your artistic development? Why did you choose them as a gallery space, almost?
The installation is actually based on my uncle Maurice’s house. The 12 siblings were raised in the Jeffries Projects. The ‘970’ on the entrance door was their childhood residence that was torn down some years ago. The house it was modelled after however, belonged to my uncle. The photo that inspired the painting was taken July 4, 1978 (1 month after my sister was born, 1 year, 2 days before I was born). The colour scheme, furniture, and decor were common for (Black) homes in the 1970s. I feel there’s a familiar and familial attachment to the space that many viewers will and have emoted.
Do you think creative spaces, such as galleries, or even community studios, have a particular duty to cultivate and nourish community care and protection? What role can networks of creative spaces and agents play in cultivating this?
I absolutely think creative spaces such as galleries and institutions have a duty to cultivate and nourish communities. Essentially they’re places of service. And if you’re not nourishing the community in which you reside, who are you serving? A lack of proper and fair resources and civil services in too many inner-city communities causes disinterest in creative activities and professional paths. Historically, most art in many institutions doesn’t have many, if any reflections, of the people and cultures in the community. I believe we’re slowly but rapidly improving though. I’m grateful I’m alive to see and experience it.
I wonder whether this also speaks to Blkout Walls, the incredibly successful mural festival which you run in your native Detroit, which literally encourages art to reach out to the community beyond the confines of the gallery, becoming part of a neighbourhood fabric. Would you agree? Detroit, as the title of your exhibition suggests, has played a really crucial part in who you are as an artist.
The city of Detroit is why I am who I am and how I am. My parents were first-generation Detroiters. Their parents on both sides came up from the south as a part of the Great Migration in which Black people from the south migrated north for factory jobs. Detroit is a place of Black love, confidence, incredible work ethic, strength, and resilience. It’s a city that lives and breathes through its people. Detroit has inspired and nurtured my creative practice ever since I realised I was an artist at the age of 3. I’ve been surrounded and supported by art and artists all my life. I am eternally grateful to Detroit and especially the people who make it.
What’s next for you, Sydney? What would you like to work on next after Girl Raised in Detroit – or are you working on anything at the moment you could share with us?
Some pieces from Girl Raised in Detroit will make their way to the Jane Lombard gallery in NYC a few months after the show comes down at MOCAD. I’m currently in the planning stages of the second annual Blkout Walls Mural Festival that is scheduled to take place in the Midtown and North End neighbourhoods of Detroit September 7-17, 2023. I’m really excited about this year’s lineup! I also will travel to St. Paul, Minnesota to paint a mural for the Chroma Zone festival at the end of June. There are a few commissions in-between but Blkout Walls is the largest project I have to look forward to.
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Serving Tee Liberation, 2023
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(Work in progress)
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(Work in progress) Unmasked Pride, 2023
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