Detroit artists Sydney James and Lamar Landers partner up for 'Portrayal'

Dec 22, 2021 at 11:41 am
click to enlarge "M'Balou Embodies Umoja" by Sydney G. James. - Randiah Camille Green
Randiah Camille Green
"M'Balou Embodies Umoja" by Sydney G. James.

People on the streets of Sierra Leonne stopped to gawk as Detroit painter Sydney G. James worked on a mural. Mural painting isn’t really a thing in the West African country, especially for female artists.

When a group of schoolboys walking by was entranced by James’ work, her partner Lamar Landers captured the moment in a photograph. It’s almost as if the boys were seeing women for the first time. This inspired James to paint one of the boys in a piece called “I SEE Women.” Both the painting and the photo that inspired it are on display in a joint exhibit between the two called Portrayal at the M Contemporary Art Gallery in Ferndale.

“This is one of the only ones that's actually a real depiction of what was going on at the moment,” James says. “The rest are a mesh of different memories and feelings.”

The show includes a total of 19 pieces — five paintings by James and 14 of Landers’ photos — that will be on display until Dec. 30.

James’ bold colors and thick strokes pair well with Landers’ slice of life portraits. Both tell the story of the couple’s travels across Africa with a juxtaposition that shows viewers how a single moment can be interpreted on film and reimagined differently on a canvas.

James tells Metro Times her portion of the exhibit is a mesh of several memories and feelings while only a few of them reflect real-time moments.

On the other hand, Landers' work captures the small, seemingly insignificant moments of life. A series of photos taken in Kroo Bay, one of the poorest slums in West Africa, shows the sheer joy of local schoolchildren. It’s as if they’re happy, not only to have their photo taken but simply to live, despite their circumstances.

His photograph “Zoe” shows a moment from last summer’s first BLKOUT Walls festival frozen in time. A young girl holding the hand of a relative turns around and looks straight into Landers’ lens as he snaps the picture in front of a mural that James is painting.

click to enlarge Lamar Landers and Sydney G. James - Randiah Camille Green
Randiah Camille Green
Lamar Landers and Sydney G. James

James is the co-founder of BLKOUT Walls, a mural festival featuring primarily BIPOC artists. The festival saw Oakland Avenue and a few other streets in the New Center neighborhood adorned with murals by local artists. You can just make her out on top of a scissor lift, working on a piece called “Matriarchy,” which she and Bakpak Durden painted together during the fest.

“She knows me,” Landers says about the girl in the photograph. “I hadn’t seen her in a while and you know how kids give you attitude, even though they like you. She was acting funny that time and she had a little mean face on.”

The entire exhibit feels like multiple realities co-existing simultaneously across different timelines in the universe. James’ murals serve as an anchor that connects the pieces through time and space, as they make several appearances throughout.

Landers’ shot, “Girl with the D Earring,” captures James’ famous Detroit mural by the same name and its reflection in a puddle of water. A fragment of that mural is also featured in James’ painting, “The More It Glows.” Meanwhile, slightly distorted versions of the mural she painted in Sierra Leonne appear in several other pieces in the exhibit.

They exist in a realm of chaos represented by the black background James paints in each one. This void was inspired by textiles from Ghana and Sierra Leonne.

“Black is the color of chaos because it’s everything combined. At first, I had all my subjects in this void, but I wanted to break that up,” she says. “The textiles I used kind of act as my prayer, like, in the midst of whatever this is, whatever this path is, I hope it can act as protection.”

The pair is the epitome of a “power couple,” but even that seems like an understatement. The creative duo melds their respective art forms together, playing off each others’ artistic vision in a true collaboration. While both James and Landers’ work stands strong on its own, viewing them together paints a fuller story.

“I don’t even actually like him,” James says playfully when asked to take a picture with Landers. They both make a face at each other before embracing and posing for the camera.

James and Landers will do an artist talk about Portrayal at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 29. In-person attendance is full, but the event will be live-streamed on M Contemporary Art’s Instagram page. The exhibit itself will be on view until Dec. 30.

The M Contemporary Art Gallery is located at 205 E. Nine Mile, Ferndale; 347-665-7011;; Gallery is open by appointment.

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