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Watch Me Work — Portraits of Self

An exhibition by Sydney G. James

Nov 9 - Dec 18, 2020

Sydney G. James is a painter and muralist born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. Her practice is responsive, action-based, repositioning the narrative of Black women in society from ‘marginalized’ to ’revered,’ one portrait at a time. Her recent projects include The Girl with the D Earring, a nine-story tall mural on the Chroma building in Detroit that is a modern take on Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. (A documentary about the making of The Girl with the D Earring is included in this exhibition.)

As part of her artist residency with the Institute for the Humanities Gallery, James recently completed a mural titled Sarah the Whatevershechoosestobe-(h)er on the first floor of the Modern Languages Building. She also led workshops with youth in Michigan juvenile justice facilities, in collaboration with the Youth Arts Alliance. 

As she often does, James looked to women from her immediate circle for inspiration and as models for Watch Me Work — Portraits of Self, an entirely new series of paintings completed during her residency.With the Gallery closed to the public due to COVID, Watch Me Work leaves the predictable institutional building and is completely visible from the street, a public celebration of these meaningful human relationships and connections.

The exhibition also includes self portraits reflective of the artist’s current relationship to her own work, not as a way of processing emotions but as a means of empowerment and protest. 

Artist Statement

Through utter shock, through grief, through disgust, through fear, through ANGER, through heartbreak...through it all, We work. Through this chaos, we work. For our families, our communities, our sanctuaries, we work. Through exhaustion, we work. Through a pandemic, we are working. We work to fill voids. In our minds, we work to fill the “Void” but we often don’t recognize the “voids” that that very work creates. The chaos surrounds us, yet we push through the heavy weight of all the woes of the hamster wheel of days.

Watch Me Work is a celebration of Black Women who get it done! From the event planning Zoom mommy to the USPS mail lady, we work. The world watches and we work. The world turns away, we work. Even those of us who sit around all day and manage to make it to the next day safely, it took work. Through the daily attacks on the pigmented people of the world, we work. We work. We work. I work.

–Sydney G. James

Watch Me Work — Portraits of Self was made possible by a grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to further the Institute for the Humanities Gallery’s longtime mission in support of art as social practice.

Exhibition runs November 9 - December 18, 2020. Note: With the Gallery closed to the public due to COVID, Watch Me Work will be completely visible from the street. Artwork will be hung in the Washington and Thayer-street first floor windows of the Institute for the Humanities, with two additional pieces visible through the gallery window on Thayer.