I have been making work actively since 2000, primarily as a painter. I typically make large-scale works that incorporate mixed media, portraiture, anatomical illustrations and cultural symbols to explore gender, disability, racialization and hope. Recently, Ive been exploring large-scale portraits of organizers/activists who have experienced and felt the implications of the prison industrial complex and complex security measures in Canada. This work will build on my artistic practice exploring activism and the lived experiences of community mobilizers, with a particular focus on queer and trans racialized activists. The activists are people that I have some familiarity with, much of my work draws on personal connections and is inspired by relationships and history together.

Graphite drawing portrait of black woman smiling with her eyes closed and hands spread open

Description of work:

Portrait of Queen Tite is a drawing of a figure from the torso to head rendered in graphite on white paper. They have their eyes closed and prominently feature their hands spread open and upward.

Portrait of Thandi Young is a drawing of a figure including the hands, shoulders and face. The figure’s eyes are closed and is smiling or laughing.

Curatorial reflections

Vanessa Dion Fletcher: The size of these portraits is significant to how we understand them: they are works on paper and are 12 x 6 feet. It is an unusually large size for a drawing. Sometimes, drawing and painting are put into a hierarchy, a drawing being thought of as a sketch, something you would do in preparation for a painting, and are done on paper rather than canvas and they’re more delicate, less permanent than paintings. They have a beautiful immediacy and intimacy that is associated with the materials but at the same time they are a size usually associated with painting so they take on a monumental quality. The scale allows the figures to be life size or larger, which I also think is important.

Lindsay Fisher: The more I look at them and get to know them, the more they vibrate with the fullness of visibility. They seem to go deeper into the notion of visibility—the scale and the detail of the graphite medium—so that visibility is not just rendered through images and faces but also through layers and texture and the markings of labour. In that way, they’re quite powerful. Syrus uses the tradition of portraiture and monuments in a way that makes you want to know who these people are.

VDF: I was thinking about how interesting the relationship is between knowing and not knowing who the people are. There are multiple experiences the viewer can have in terms of understanding the portraits. If it is of a person from your community or a person whom you know, then you’ll be seeing them through the lens of the experience of recognition. If you don’t know who they are, like you said, there’s an entry point, to find out more about them. These drawings function to both celebrate these people and to also reveal, for a portion of the audience that they don’t know, who the people are. It’s kind of nice that Syrus isn’t telling you. It’s not a case of explaining to the audience. The portraits provide some impetus or some space for the audience to do that work.

LF: Syrus says in one of his artist statements: “I began exploring portrait as a way of painting my community into art history and as a way of documenting my reality”

VDF: “Documenting my reality”, such a great way to put it. I’m thinking about the images in terms of space, both the physical space in the gallery and the mental space in our imaginations. If the people who are doing important work in our community are not acknowledged—if they’re not visually represented, then there is an absence and by having those images in our heads and in our worlds, you’re creating more space for them literally in the gallery and more space in people's imaginations and thoughts and the discourse around Ideas that are important to us.

LF: One thing Gloria Anzaldúa talks a lot about is culture and how it forms our belief and dictates what we perceive as our reality. It’s interesting to think about the role that documentation plays in that process and how we represent history. I like that there’s a conscious awareness in these works—that in making them, Syrus advocates for space to be conscious in how we document experience, and make visible different histories. The people we choose to represent and document in our lives empower the viewer who identifies with that subject and who then further empowers the experience of difference by witnessing and seeing that work.

VDF: To a certain extent, we have the ability to celebrate the people who we think should be celebrated. How do we draw our attention away from political or other “important” figures to the people in our lives who we think are doing really important work and make sure we create spaces of visibility for them?