The Future Through the Past: Andra Simons and Syrus Marcus Ware in Conversation

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Andra Simons and Syrus Marcus Ware have an e-mail chat across the ocean between London and Tkaronto/Toronto. They discuss queer and trans disabled perspectives on disability justice, Black Lives Matter Canada, UK Black activism, time travel – and where art fits in.

Andra Simons:

Pencil portrait of !kona a Black activist wearing a headscarf who is closing her eyes and scrunching up her face into an expressive and toothy smile. The portrait is a detailed pencil drawing, and realistic in style.

Portrait of !kona. Activist Portrait Series, 2018, Graphite on paper, 12′ x 5′. Portrait and photo by Syrus Marcus Ware.

Hi Syrus. How do you balance your creative practice alongside your activism? Are they one and the same, or do you see a difference?  Does time and/or your relation to time factor in at all?

Syrus Marcus Ware:

My practice is quite enmeshed with my activism and vice versa. I’ve been doing both activism and art for 25 years. My practice explores Black activist culture, and my activism uses creative approaches to fight for our freedoms – murals, banners, performative demos. I’m very aware of the ways that activism can be appropriated by the arts community and coopted. I make work that is actually connected to direct action in the streets, as a way of supporting these movements.

What do you think about activist-infused art? Is it something you think is a good direction artistically? How do activisms and arts differ in Canada and the UK?

Andra:

I think activist-infused art is essential to any movement. I think any movement needs multiple sharp edges to progress. Art offers a different language to express the ideas and solutions. It can both validate those within, or illustrate to those who stand outside. I know personally I’m more often attracted to these political, activist artistic expressions.

I also think the sharp edges include the subtler choices – from those that educate themselves and dare to discuss issues with family and friends in the privacy of their workspaces and home, to those that organise the marches and panels. Every edge has its own value in a broader sense, and sometimes art can reflect those subtler aspects.

A Black performer with a small afro and wearing a white tshirt. His hands are held up as if holding something or pushing upwards. A white chalk hand is imprinted across his face. He speaks into a microphone with eyes closed.

Andra Simons. Photo by Robert Piwko.

As for how activism and the arts differ between Canada and the UK? Well, when I arrived in London from Bermuda in 2004, I was instantly hit by what felt like a stagnation of socio-political discourse. People were generally reluctant to engage. The common ground I found was often with others who had emigrated to the UK. There definitely were small and loud pockets, but I often felt like these voices weren’t receiving the amplification they needed, often belittled and ridiculed.

I do feel there was a breakthrough after the 2011 riots across the UK, even if subconsciously. And recently with the Grenfell Tower Fire in 2017 and The Windrush deportation scandal last year. These issues amplified around race and class. The UK still doesn’t teach colonialism or the slave trade in its schools, and I find on the whole many feel it’s something that ‘happened over there’.

As for queer POC bodies, my gut tells me Canada is several steps ahead, but that doesn’t take away from the amazing work that British artists of colour have done and continue to do.

From the establishment of Black Lives Matter in Canada, there seems to have been an awareness of accessibility and inclusion of marginalised voices within the Black community. It almost renders #AllBlackLivesMatter redundant when speaking of Black queer/trans and disabled and D/deaf people. Can you speak to this process?

Book cover of Until We Are Free shows a black and white photograph of many Black protesters giving a raised fist salute in the middle of a main intersection of Yonge Street in Toronto. The title of the book is written in black on a striking yellow band across the centre of the page, like police tape. Below the title it says, "Edited by Rodney Diverlus, Sandy Hudson and Syrus Marcus Ware."

Cover of Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada. Credit University of Regina Press.

Syrus:

Black Lives Matter is a movement made up of disabled, Mad, sick and crip communities – with queer and trans leadership. Our movement is a disability justice one that addresses the intersections of anti-Blackness and saneism that create fatal interactions between Black mad people and the police. We’ve worked to call out the deaths of Andrew Loku, Abdirahman Abdi, amleset haile. We’ve called on our communities to remember these Black disabled lives cut short by the police.

We draw on the Combahee River Collective statement that if you make the world safer for Black women, you are necessarily making it safer for everybody. I would update this statement to say if we make the world safer for Black trans women with disabilities or who are Deaf and/or Mad, we would be making the world safer for everyone. We do this work to fight for the self-determination of all Black people. We fight, and we will win. In Until We Are Free: Reflections on Black Lives Matter in Canada, which I recently co-edited with Rodney Diverlus and Sandy Hudson, we highlight some of the ways we’ve fought so far.

What’s the movement like in the UK? Is there an intersectional approach to Black organising there? Is disability and racialised capitalism connected to the movements for Black lives?

Andra:

To be honest I’m not aware of a strong Black Lives Matter movement in the UK. A few years back I had come across discussions, and there may have been some movement on a broader scale. But it doesn’t seem to have taken hold. However, there have been some clear voices during this time, like rapper and author Akala and artist Yinka Shonibare. Black queer activism is especially strong with voices from Lady Phyll, and artists Ajamu and Jay Bernard. This activism often has an intersectional approach, including disabled people.

Which piece of your own art did you last find challenging to create? Which was the last piece you created that surprised you or reflected a part of yourself you hadn’t expected?

Syrus:

For the Toronto Biennial of Art, I created ‘Ancestors, Do you Read Us? (Dispatches from the Future)’, an eight-channel video set in 2072. This video presupposes that our great-grandchildren have survived in the future and have to figure out a way, using old technology, to patch into the video wall to send us a message for the future. The video was shown at the Ryerson Image Centre, a 4K video wall at the Ryerson University. For this video I worked with Mishann Lau and Rémy Huberdeau. We used footage we shot in fields in north Toronto spliced with found footage from the archives. Our great-grandchildren flip through time zones trying to hone into our frequency.

The photo is taken from behind the front row of the audience. Two people of colour watch a large banner-shaped screen on the Salah J Bachir New Media Wall. From the screen, four Black faces lean down towards the camera, as if it's on the ground. They're dressed in bright colours, and have futuristic styled clothing. The most clear face is of a young person with a serious expression. Behind them, electricity towers and a blue sky.

Still from ‘Ancestors, Do You Read Us? (Dispatches From the Future)’ Featuring Kyisha Williams, Rodney Diverlus, Janine Carrington and Jasmyn Fyffe. Photo by Syrus Marcus Ware.

It was a challenge because we don’t imagine futures where Black and Indigenous people survive, where disabled people survive. This video imagines an unimaginable future, and they have a warning for us in the present – to act, to rebel, to overthrow capitalism.

Through this project I learned that hope fundamentally drives my practice. I want us to feel hope and possibility. I’m driven by the Toni Cade Bambara quote that the role of the oppressed artist is to make revolution irresistible – and that’s what I want to do.

What kind of art are you making in these revolutionary times?

Andra:

I find it really interesting about how we don’t imagine our futures, as my work is about imagining our past, or rather re-imagining it. My upcoming book Turtlemen, which has been more than ten years in the making, does this. It takes those stories about family and community I heard as a child, as well as my own experiences, and fills in those holes intentionally left out. Or more so, unintentionally. In doing that I create a new whole. It’s a sort of mythological re-building of Bermuda.

GOSSIP KEEPERS:
Turtlemen learned to milk their goats. They learned to sleep next to the window and wait for
the floral scent of forgiveness on the breeze. They learned their darker-skinned kin were not
as revered as their paler-skinned conquerors. Turtlemen learned to create coloured tiers of
their own and build it into their constitution. Turtlemen watched as others were lured from the
edge of the Sargasso to work their fields. Turtlemen learned to pin the lips of their unmarried
sisters. Turtlemen pulled socks up to their knees.

– excerpt from ‘Interlude’ (Turtlemen, Copy Press, 2020)

As I’ve grown older my focus has been on the micro-revolutions. A conversation that changed one’s mind, the moment someone chooses to open a door onto something bolder, or love something/one beyond their imagined capacity, etc. Turtlemen places characters in those moments just before their shift. I feel these moments are as important in shaping the world as the masses who take to the street, the stages and the pages. These turnings are what make the larger picture take hold. Or most times they are the spark that ignites the big bang into an unimagined future.

And what are you making in these times of change?

Syrus:

I’ve been drawn to work that prepares us for what’s coming – revolutionary change and widespread social collapse and rebirth. I’ve been making work interested in supporting the lives of activists for the past five years, through the Activist Portrait Series and Activist Love Letters. But now I want to spend time preparing everyone – getting us all ready to go – as Lauren Olamina in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower encourages us to do. We are in revolutionary times and as Octavia told us: “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you”. To the future!

Andra:

Cheers, Syrus. And may we all be ever-changing!


Andra and Syrus bios (audio):

Andra and Syrus bios (text).


Sandra Alland is guest editor at DAO from 25th March to 26th April. Check out all San’s commissioned pieces on their Project page. Audio versions of all pieces can be found on San’s dedicated SoundCloud channel.