Detroit artist creates Malice Green mural that honors black lives lost
When work began on the names, Sydney G. James saw the toll that the process was taking on her team of assistants.
“I looked up at them and saw their faces and said, ‘Why don’t you finish whatever you all are doing and come down,’ ” says the Detroit artist, who created a new, 3,500 square-feet mural on the side of a Highland Park art gallery that she co-owns.
The person depicted on the wall is Malice Green, the unarmed African American man who was beaten to death by two Detroit police officers in 1992.
But the message of this vivid, relevant piece of public art is the scroll of paper that Green holds in his hands — a listing of names of Black men and women who have died from police brutality or racism.
James originally wanted to include all the names dating to 1979, the year she was born. But that would have been too, too many, even for a wall she estimates is 30 feet or more high.
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“Even from now dating back to 2014 is well over a thousand names,” she says. “So now I know all the names won’t be included. We’ll do our best. But it’s a lot. It’s a lot.”
James has won acclaim as an emerging artist who is unafraid to tackle difficult, necessary themes in her work. One of her best-known murals, “Black List” in Eastern Market, is a portrait of an African American woman holding a piece of paper bearing these words by Detroit poet Scheherazade Washington Parrish: “The Definitive List of Everything That Will Keep You Safe As A Black Woman Being In America.”
The rest of the sheet is empty.
Her latest mural, which she completed Thursday, comes after massive protests against systemic racism and the violent policing of Black Americans, triggered by the death of George Floyd and the horrifying video of a Minneapolis police officer putting his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes.
What happened to Floyd has become a catalyst for a national conversation about truths that have existed for years and decades and centuries.
While there is hope for transformative change resulting from this moment, the mural speaks to the grief and outrage at so many lives lost.
“I told someone at the beginning of this, I was like, this is going to be the most beautiful, ugly thing that I’ve ever painted, and that’s exactly what it is. The further along we go with it, the more painful it is to do,” says James, speaking early last week. “Today was a day full of tears, hurt, and we only scratched the surface of the names.”
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James, 40, born and raised in Detroit, was just 13 when Malice Green died in 1992, the same year that four Los Angeles cops were acquitted of the vicious beating of Rodney King — another awful moment caught on camera. Five days of riots erupted in L.A. in response to another blind eye turned to what was there for the world to see.
More: 25 years ago, Malice Green became the face of police brutality in Detroit
On the 25th anniversary of Green’s death, the Free Press took an in-depth look at the incident and the racial divisions exposed by the region’s reactions to the search for justice.
“A pair of plainclothes Detroit police officers approached Malice Green in front of a known drug house on the city’s west side,” the story recounted. “When Green reportedly refused to drop what he was holding in his clinched hand, the beating began. At least one of the officers used his heavy steel flashlight to pound Green and more cops arrived.”
By the time an ambulance took Green to Detroit Receiving Hospital, he was dead.
The two officers, Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn, were convicted of second-degree murder and went to prison. After a successful appeal, they were both convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
Five days after Green’s death, Detroit artist Bennie White Jr. Ethiopia Israel painted a mural on a storefront at West Warren Avenue. Initially, he just wanted to go to the site where Green had died. Then he saw Green’s blood in the street, along with a red rose left at the spot, and decided to preserve Green’s memory on a nearby building.
The city demolished the abandoned party store with the mural in 2013. But the memory of Israel’s mural still hits James today. “It was such a powerful symbol because Malice Green looks like a black Jesus,” she says. She recalls the black tears streaming from his face in the likeness.
“I think that might have been the most important part of that piece,” she says. “That was not just Malice Green’s tears. It was the Black community’s tears.”
In the wake of the May death of Floyd and renewed attention to the March death of Breonna Taylor, an emergency medical technician shot repeatedly and killed by Louisville police, James ran across an article about the Green case.
As James told Detour Detroit, “It made mention of the original mural by Bennie White Jr., that I had no idea had been destroyed. I always took comfort knowing that it was there. It was important that it was there because it was a reminder of a time when we got justice.”
James felt that she had to paint a mural with Green in it. “After a few conversations over a couple of days, it just hit me. I sketched out the composition for the wall in, like, 10 minutes. I was like, ‘it has to look like this.’ ”
She posted a GoFundMe page for the project in hopes of raising $10,000. In less than three hours, she met her goal. It garnered nearly $19,000 before she closed the donations (and the extra funds will go toward social justice and COVID-19 support efforts).
Art has been part of James’ life since, well, forever. She says she has been drawing since she was 3. When she turned 7, she started taking extension classes at the College for Creative Studies.
“I knew I was going to CCS for college when I turned 9,” she says.
After graduating from Cass Technical High School and getting a bachelor of fine arts in 2001 from CCS, James worked in advertising in Detroit. In 2004, she moved to Los Angeles, where she put her skills to use in the film and TV industry. She did all the artwork for the character of aspiring artist Cassie in “Lincoln Heights,” the 2006-09 drama on the ABC Family network (now rebranded as Freeform).
But L.A. didn’t feel like a permanent address to James, who visited Detroit as much as possible. “I believe my last year I lived out there, I came home 11 times,” she recalls.
In 2011, she came back for good. Since then, through paintings and murals that share the same aesthetic and themes, she has emerged as a strong voice on the Detroit art scene and elsewhere. Her art has been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and the Detroit Artist Market. Her first solo show debuted in 2019 at Playground Detroit
Her creations for Murals in the Market at Eastern Market have helped open doors to other opportunities, like the artwork she did at Essence Fest 2019 for Ford Motor Company. In 2017, James received a Kresge Artist Fellowship, a prestigious award for those who have a track record of achievement in the arts and the potential to make an impact in the region.
Impactful is a modest way to describe the “Appropriated Not Appreciated” series that James devoted to the reality of life for Black women in America today. Her “Black List” mural is part of the series, which was spurred in part by the 2015 death of Sandra Bland in Texas and a video taken that same year of a Black teenage girl at a pool party in Texas being tackled by a white policeman.
“This police officer literally taking this 14-year-old Black girl to the ground, yanking on her braids, putting his knee into her back. It was awful. It was disgusting. And I watched that video late at night, right before going to bed,” says James. “When I woke up, I think ‘Appropriated Not Appreciated’ was born.”
James says she painted Black women for the series in a way that conveyed “how I felt white people and the world treated us.” She discovered that the pieces spoke to women, Black and white, in a universal way. On issues like racism and patriarchy, James speaks loudly and clearly. For a group show, she placed a nude self-portrait “on the ground as a doormat, because all women are figuratively doormats throughout society.”
Talking about the power of art, James references Diego Rivera, the Mexican painter whose Detroit Industry Murals, the numerous fresco paintings on four walls, are a treasure of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Rivera wanted art to be accessible to everyday women and men and to reflect their concerns. James feels the same obligation.
“He strongly believed that art was for the public. It belonged to the people. I do my best to carry that with me when I do the public pieces. I have the people in mind, the community.”
James’ new mural, tentatively titled the “Malice Green Mural Monument,” makes a big impression as you drive by the Hamilton Tucker Gallery on Hamilton Avenue, which she co-owns with artists Bre’Ann White and Rayshard Tucker.
The mural took about a week to finish. The wall was primed on Friday. The actual painting started Sunday. Work had to be wrapped by Thursday, because of the rental due dates for expensive lifts and equipment needed to do the job.
By Thursday, James — with help from her team of assistant artists, Bakpak Durden, Ijania Cortez and Cyrah Powers — had wrapped up the painting. She credits her all-female crew with not wanting her to go through the project alone.
In the mural, Green is painted in shades of gray to look like a sculpture embedded in the wall. The tears that appear carved on his face are a nod to Israel’s 1992 mural.
Green holds a long scroll of paper — sheets of different shades taped together and winding for what seems like miles — that contains names of the dead. Some look like a list that he has written. Others seem torn from news headlines. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Trayvon Martin. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. And on and on and on.
On June 19, or Juneteenth, the annual day reserved for commemorating the end of slavery in the United States, James is planning to officially unveil the mural munity gathering.
Last week, James had a chance to meet Israel, who came to the site to see the work in progress. “He loved it and it made my day. It made my whole 2020, because we need that. Everybody needs a moment like that for this year, in particular.”
Art has been a part of the current 2020 protest movement, in homemade signs and the “Black Lives Matter” phrase that Washington D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser had painted in huge yellow capital letters on a street near the White House.
When more than a mile of wire fencing was erected temporarily as an extra barrier outside the White House and Lafayette Park, it was transformed into a grassroots art installation as people covered it with protest posters.
James thinks singer/activist Nina Simone put it best when she said an artist’s duty is to reflect the times. “We don’t have the luxury of painting pretty pictures because we feel like it. We are burdened with telling our truths. … It is your job as an artist to tell your truth of your time,” she says.
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