Photos and interview by Vivek Shraya.
In a time of superlatives and exaggerations, the word “hero” is often thrown around freely. I am guilty of this, no doubt, but when I think of the true meaning of hero, Syrus Marcus Ware is one of the few people who come to mind.
I distinctly remember the first time I heard him speak at a Pride meeting in 2010, passionately discussing his frustrations about the ways Blockorama had been disrespected by the festival. I wondered how someone could convey rage with so much patience, and since then have tried imbuing my own loose activism with the generosity I witnessed that night.
In 2013, I was grateful for his participation in my project, What I LOVE about QUEER, and am now equally grateful to feature more of his wisdom here at Heartbeats.
You have been involved in Toronto Black activism for decades. Can you talk about your work with Blackness Yes & Blockorama?
Yes! I started working with Blackness Yes! in 2004, after volunteering with set up crew in 2003. This group is a free flowing collective with deep roots in Black queer and trans organizing from the 70s–90s in Toronto. The year I began with Blackness Yes! some of the founding members were passing on the torches they’d kept burning for years. I’ve been organizing for almost 13 years now with the team—and it’s been really powerful and lovely to be part of this team! We are headed into our 18th year!
In my role, I work on art and design for the space and accessibility and site planning. We have always wanted to make Blockorama an explicitly *beautiful* space, both literally and spiritually—an unapologetically Black space in a sea of whiteness and white supremacy. I make giant banners and art for the space, drawing on activist art and writing and using bold print fabrics and revolutionary symbols. My favourite banner to date was for the 8th year—The Fire This Time. Everything was up in (fabric) flames, as we put pressure on Pride to address and support QUAIA, the repeated moves of Blockorama’s location and the ongoing erasure of youth, Indigenous people and other POCs from the festival. I had so much fun making textile flames that were everywhere in Blocko that year.
We have fought to have an accessible stage, to have ASL interpretation on stage and in the crowd (we were the first stage to have ASL, and it’s a fight every year to ensure we have this), and to have a beautiful, raised disability-viewing area with food, shade, sight lines and very comfy couches.
Over the years we have also run local events and community mobilizations like Back to Our Roots (held over three years between 2009-2011) and Blockobana (held every Caribana weekend since 2009).
This year, Black Lives Matter will be leading the Pride Toronto parade. Do you see this as an indication of change for Pride Toronto?
Hmm. We are loving the Black focus for pride this year—but having a Black person or group leading the march does not erase the anti-Black racism that is implicit in much of Pride (and in the LGBTQ community as a whole). Pride has done this before, such as having the amazing Victor Mukasa as the International Grand Marshal in the mid-2000s. We love that they did this and cheered for him and are we are cheering for BLM TO but also woke enough to see this for what it is.
Black queer and trans people have been fighting for visibility and presence and we have seen a ramping up of anti-Black racism more broadly in the community, the world, and yes, also at the festival. 2015 was a hard year, we lost countless Black trans people, mostly trans women, and Black LGBTTI2QQ people to violence, phobia and police brutality. Recognizing that Black people need to lead the march is the minimum of what is needed right now.
We need to come together across the city and figure out how we are going to fortify and save each other, how we are going to use out bodies and minds to literally make a human shield to save our people from brutal anti-Black violence. We need to support all activists who are facing a police crackdown on their freedoms because of their organizing. We need to support activists who are being brutalized on social media because of how they respond to the brutal violence that is patriarchy and white supremacy.
Our goal with Blackness Yes! has never been to just have this stage or to be in the parade—our goal is sweeping social change, community development and support, and revolutionary action that ensures that we all get to survive!
Our goal is for folks who aren’t able to be out to see themselves reflected. That folks who are working to change laws and policy know that they have a community behind them. That we create space to deeply connect our organizing to struggles for decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty. That we are working to address capitalism and its violences that keep poor Black, Indigenous and racialized people disenfranchised and without self-determination. We create space to heal ourselves and to foster self-love and to feel for a moment what it is to be free.
When we met, you talked about the idea of reverence being a form of activism. Can you say more about this?
I have been creating very large-scale portraits of activists/revolutionaries/community mobilizers as a way of celebrating activists’ culture, activists’ lives and as a way of understanding the many daily choices that we all have to get involved in big and little ways to make the world a place where we all get to have self-determination and where we all get to be free. These portraits are an act of reverence, a celebration of life and of choice and of action(s). Getting to talk to people about their organizing, their experiences of love, their stories, and then spending an extended period of time staring lovingly at them, creating portraits over a 72-84 hour period—this is a celebration and created out of a deep appreciation.
I began exploring portraiture and painting also as a way of painting my community into art history, and as a way to document my reality. I have been drawn to portraiture to render invisible lives visible: trans activists, political heroes, people with disabilities painted large in a style and medium previously reserved for dignitaries and wealthy patrons. The artistic tradition of painting is impacted in re-enforcing systemic structures such as class hierarchies, racism and defining which humans are valuable. My work attempts to interrupt this process by re-entering the frame around ‘unintelligible bodies’, those on the margins.
This series and my performances—including Activist Love Letters—are aimed at supporting and sustaining our movements—and our activists. I love humans and I am ultimately so moved by the ways that we show up for each other, and the ways that we work to make sure that we can all make it in the end!
Your current project Activist Love Letters has many layers. Can you talk about the inspiration for the project as well as the various components?
Activist Love Letters was first performed at the Feminist Art Gallery in Toronto as part of Cinenova: An Audience of Enablers Cannot Fail (An initiative of the Feminist Art Gallery, The Power Plant and the Art Gallery of York University, in conjunction with their retrospective exhibition Will Munro: History, Glamour, Magic, running 11 January – 11 March, 2012.)
I’ve been loving the chance to do this project—I’ve sent almost a 1000 letters over the past 4.5 years to activists across North American (and beyond! to China, the Philippines, the UK etc…)
The letters always seem to reach people at the exact right time. I get replies from people who have received letters and they are often quite moved by this exchange between strangers.
We are in a situation now where we have created so many barriers to reaching out across distance and to strangers; social media and email actively filters out mail from those you don’t know as spam. I wanted to find a way for us to make connections with other people as part of our survival and as a sustainability mechanism. When the machines are gone, all we will have is each other, and we need to figure out how to be with each other, to appreciate the magical beauty of these other human beings, to ask them questions and get to know why and how they do what they do. To love them.
I recently gave a talk at Goldsmiths University and while there I learned that a museum in the States has tried to copy my project—taking the name, content and concept of my project!—but without the same political analysis. Their version seems like a super paternalistic one aimed at ‘empowering teens’ of colour to become ‘inspired.’ Lots of talk about them being oppressed, and little analysis about what it means to be free (and little regret for plagiarizing this work, unfortunately). It’s quite horrifying! But despite the sea of emotions that this brings up for me, the biggest response I have to this is that it shows that more than ever we need to learn how to be better for each other, with each other. My project is about making sure that we all make it and this appropriation reminds me that not everyone has the same goals!
Why is intergenerational dialogue so necessary? How do we create more of it?
We need to be with each other fully, learning from our experiences, sharing what we’ve gleaned from this wild ride. Intergenerational conversations allow us to plan for the future and understand the past, and the present through a lens of community history and embodied knowledge.
There is an amazing band from Chicago—the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble—and they have a piece called “ancestral song’ in which they sing, “only by knowing my past, is the only way we can last”. Knowing the past and imagining the future is essential to our survival—all of our survival!
When we imagine these pre-figurative futures, these Octavia Butler-type communities, we will need to be able to figure out dealing with conflict, how to support each other, and how to make something beautiful together.
We create more of it by reaching out and meeting new people outside of our typically age-segregated peer groups. We go to support older activists and artists and community members when they launch things into the world. We go to projects created by younger people and we show up. When we have the opportunity to shape the way a space is—through designing a program, an event, a classroom, whatever—we use this opportunity to make sure that we are speaking to difference, and that we are making things dynamic and accessible to a range of generations.
What other projects are you working on?
I’m the inaugural artist-in-residence for Daniels Spectrum. I’ll be working for the next year making new work about activists and organizing in Regent Park over the past 60 years. And into the future! I’m very excited!
I have just finished installing the exhibition TSG: Come Together at the Gladstone Hotel. This is an annual exhibition and I love getting to work with artists to co-create a larger conversation about intersectionality and our experiences of gender and sexuality. The show is up until August 17, 2016.
I am also working on a PhD at York University focused on disability, race and the museum. It’s hard work, but I love it and am feeling incredibly honoured to have my work and research supported in this way.