Detroit Artist Sydney James’ New Exhibition Celebrates Essential Workers

“Watch Me Work — Portraits of Self,” on display now at the University of Michigan, is a celebration of the frontline work of Black women

As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc across the nation, many people considered “essential workers” have had to battle the virus up close and in person. One local Detroit artist began to take notice of the Black women who continue to serve during this pandemic.

Native Detroiter and visual artist Sydney James’ newest exhibit “Watch Me Work — Portraits of Self” is a celebration of the work of Black women.

“We are the essential workers. No matter what the work is, our mere presence is essential,” says James. 

From a USPS worker to mothers, the exhibition features portraits of Black women workers, demonstrating their collective contributions and labors.

According to James, the past few months have been truly was a tough time for Black people, especially after the public deaths of George Floyd and Breyonna Taylor, but Black women have persevered. “I started just paying more attention to all of this work that stayed being done during this pandemic and I felt I should honor that,” says James.

James says she hopes people take something positive away from the artwork. “I want people to take away what it looks like or might or it’s really a glimpse, and it’s a small glimpse of what any Black woman might be going through at this moment. Any person might be going through at this moment. And hopefully, soften them up a bit,” says James. “I want people to take away ‘humanity’ when they look at this work.”

“Watch Me Work — Portraits of Self” is on display now at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities.

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  • Tia Graham
    Tia Graham is a reporter and Weekend Edition Host for 101.9 WDET. She graduated from Michigan State University where she had the unique privilege of covering former President Barack Obama and his trip to Lansing in 2014.