Panel image from “Black August” by Syrus Marcus Ware. Image courtesy of the artist.
Editor’s Note: “The Smell of Our Own” is a new column in Broken Pencil where we enlist an artist we love to interview another artist (working in a different medium) to discuss their creative processes, inspirations, challenges and other cool stuff!
by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha
I met Syrus Marcus Ware in 2000, when we were baby queer of color artist activists. He was working at the University of Toronto’s Women and Trans Centre at the time. Fifteen years later, he is someone who is central to queer and trans Black cultural and activist work in the city. Syrus is the ultimate Taurus QTPOC arts genius. I had a chance to sit down with him and talk about the nine million marvelous things he is working on.
Leah: You’re a genius! Tell me about some of the cultural productions you have been working on lately that you are most excited about.
Syrus: Thank you Leah! I’ve been busy this year doing a bunch of different projects:
I’ve been drawing large scale portraits of black activists for installation at Jess Dobkin’s Chester Artist’s Newsstand in celebration of Black August and working with other disabled, sick and crazy artists through the Performance.Disability. Art.(PDA) Collective on a disability arts showcase at the Newsstand. This summer I shot footage at the Twinsburg, OH Twins Days Festival because I’m also making a short film about being an identical twin. (It was amazing being there with thousands of twins all in one place!) It’s been a busy summer, but joyously so!
L: What was your pathway to becoming a visual artist? And how do you see your visual artwork relating to your work as a DJ, prison justice organizer, Black queer/ trans and disability justice organizer, and curator?
S: I was always interested in pursuing art as a full-time gig. I’ve done lots of different kinds of creative practices, including arts admin, curating, hosting community radio, etc. But I’ve also continued to make my own work and develop projects about my lived experiences as a black, disabled, queer, identical twin, parent, and activist.
I’ve found that having a kind of seamless connection between all parts of my work and my life has been really sustaining. I make work about activism, I make creatvity part of organizing. I experience disability and work around disability justice, and so I make art work about this too. It all kind of fits together.
L: Tell me about co-producing Blockorama (the Black queer and trans stage at Toronto Pride) this year.
S: It’s always such a pleasure to get to work on Blockorama. Our collective, Blackness Yes! is a beautiful group of people and the work that we get to do together is really special and life-giving. Blocko is an 11-hour stage at the Toronto Pride Festival that sees between 5,000–8,000 people each year, and this is its 17th year! Over the years we’ve welcomed headliners like Diana King, Ultra Nate, Quentin Harris and En Vogue. This year was a big year because we had Destra Garcia headline Blocko, and it was the first time a soca artist from the Caribbean performed at a pride festival. She was amazing!
We had this wonderful moment when she waved a pride flag and publicly stated that she was proud and in support of our communities.
L: What are your queer, trans, Black disabled art freedom dreams?
S: My dreams are that we can make it; that we can build communities rooted in collectivity, shared survival goals, social justice, disability justice and love. I want us to learn how to be with each other, and get through conflict and struggles together in preparation for the very near future where we are going to have to rely on each other in real ways to make it through the human-transformed environment and climate change extremes. I dream about living on the precambrian shield, keeping as many bees/
pollinators as we can and living our activism day in day out.
Syrus Marcus Ware is a visual artist, community activist, researcher, youth-advocate and educator. He is the Program Coordinator of the AGO Youth Program, Art Gallery of Ontario. You can learn more about his work at syrusmarcusware.com.
Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha is a queer disabled femme writer, performer, healer and teacher of Burgher/Tamil Sri Lankan and Irish/Roma ascent. Her first memoir, Dirty River, was published this fall by Arsenal Pulp Press. Learn more at brownstargirl.org.