The pandemic, George Floyd, race: New Detroit Artists Market exhibition touches on it all

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Detroiter Sommer Woods made headlines last fall when she encountered a mob of Pro-Trump supporters at the TCF Center and stopped them from interrupting the vote of Detroit's absentee ballots.

Now, Woods, a logistics coordinator in last year's general election, is captured in a painting that's part of a thought-provoking new exhibition opening Friday at the Detroit Artists Market. It raises a host of questions about the intersection of art, race, politics and more.

The painting, created by Detroit muralist Sydney James, shows Woods confronting a red-cloaked mob. A large earring shaped like Africa dangles from her ear and her hand is raised in the air.

A painting by artist Sydney James depicts Detroiter Sommer Woods stopping a group of Pro-Trump supporters from interrupting the count of absentee ballots at the TCF Center.

"The red cloaks represent the Klan mob spirit that lives within the threatening and hostile mob that surrounded Sommer at the TCF Center," said James.

The portrait is one of many in the new exhibition, "The Vanguard Artist Collective: Overture," that opens Friday, bringing together four talented Detroit artists and touching on a host of timely issues. Besides last year's general election, themes include the pandemic, working moms, George Floyd's murder, Black identity and politics.

When it comes to art, the aim is often about creating dialogue, says Matt Fry, the Detroit Artists Market's director, and "this show is a good example of doing just that."

James, a well-known muralist in the city, says Vanguard -- which includes her, artists Rashaun Rucker and Tylonn J. Sawyer and writer Scheherazade Washington Parrish -- came together in 2017.

The four friends, who often draw inspiration from one another and are all based in Detroit, were inspired by Black art collectives of the past such as AfriCOBRA, a group of Black artists that came together in Chicago in the late 1960s, she said.

"We’re all visual artists. We’re all in the scene in some type of way – Detroit, nationally, internationally," said James, who also in the midst of planning a mural festival this summer that will focus on Black artists. "We had Detroit roots and Detroit love. It’s just symbiotics."

Their first show together includes 27 pieces in a range of mediums, including acrylic on canvas, mixed media, charcoal and gold leaf.

The color red is woven in different ways throughout the exhibit. Artist Rashaun Rucker, a former photographer for the Detroit Free Press, created an entire series of five carbon pencil drawings, called "Red Seeing Black 1-5," that depict himself and four friends, all Black men, and their reaction to Floyd's murder last summer. Each portrait has a red background.

"The red speaks to the climate of America and the rage felt in the Black community," said Rucker. "Two of the drawings -- one featuring myself -- have their eyes closed. The closed eyes speak to the overwhelming burden of the times and having visual overload from the murder of George Floyd."

James and Parrish have collaborated before on a mural at Eastern Market that depicts a Black woman holding a piece of paper that reads, "The Definitive List of Everything That Will Keep You Safe As A Black Woman Being in America." "Woman" is crossed out in James' new painting and the list is blank. A smaller version of the same mural is included in the Detroit Artists Market Show.

Muralist Sydney James created a smaller version of a mural she created in Eastern Market. Writer Scheherazade Washington Parrish wrote the words.

"We loved collaborating," said James. "I actually feature her work on several more of my paintings. It’s wonderful. I can just call her and say I have this idea and she either has something that she’s already written or she comes up with something."

Fry calls James' Woods painting the cornerstone of the show. Woven into the backdrop of the painting are African cloth patterns.

"It works on a lot of levels and you can see them coming through," said Fry. "I think this is a really powerful piece."

In the end, James said she hopes guests walk away from the exhibition with the sense that "Blackness is not a monolith."

"We all have the same needs, similar needs and different needs at the same time," said James. "Sometimes we’re eclectic, sometimes we’re conservative. Whatever we are it’s bold."

'The Vanguard Artist Collective: Overture'

Friday to July 25 at Detroit Artists Market, 4719 Woodward.

Gallery hours are 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Go to