'All power to all people': Syrus Marcus Ware makes art in hope of a more free world

Few embody the marriage of art and activism quite like visual artist, activist and scholar Syrus Marcus Ware. Meet him in our Queer (Self) Portrait series.

Few embody the marriage of art and activism quite like this visual artist, activist and scholar

(CBC Arts)

Looking at the busy calendar ahead of me for Toronto Pride, I see a pastiche of events that symbolize what being queer is all about for me: equal parts art, community, activism and fun. Layer on a lot of laughter, booze and glitter and you've basically foreshadowed my Instagram feed for the week.

In launching the Queer (Self) Portraits — a series that celebrates queer and trans artists — during Pride, I can't help but reflect on the role of artists in the larger movement for a more free, just and inclusive queer community. Few embody the marriage of art and activism quite like visual artist, activist and scholar Syrus Marcus Ware.

Working within the mediums of painting, installation and performance, Syrus uses art to challenge systemic oppression and explore the spaces between and around identities — acting as provocations to our understandings of gender, sexuality and race. From celebrating unsung queer and trans heroes of colour through his Activist Portrait Series to his curatorial work like asking queer artists to imagine what a queer and trans uprising would look like in That's So Gay: Uprising, Syrus' work is a testament to the power of art as a tool for change. As he says in his video portrait: "Art can help us to imagine things and picture a future in a way that is hard to articulate using words or even direct action."

In addition to pulling down walls, we also have to be planting the seeds. All of my work has been about watering the seeds.- Syrus Marcus Ware

What is missing from this abridged Syrus biography, however, is his spirit. For someone who has been fighting against infuriating injustices for decades, who has been on the frontlines of protest for prisoner justice, anti-racism, queer rights; whose lived experience as a queer black trans man means this work is not only political but personal, I was admittedly expecting to meet someone...jaded? Exhausted? At the very least someone with a chip on their shoulder?

(CBC Arts)

But Syrus is none of these things. His glowing enthusiasm for his work, his adoration for community and his unyielding faith in a better future is contagious and inspiring. When I asked him how he keeps motivated in challenging times, he cited the words of activist Assata Shakur: "I believe that we will win." Sometimes it might not feel true, but we have to act as though we believe it.

It feels all too fitting to kick off the Queer (Self) Portrait Series with an artist who deserves to be celebrated for making our community, indeed our world, a better place, and whose powerful imagination helps us picture a world where "we can all survive and thrive."

Queer (Self) Portraits was born out of director Gabrielle Zilkha's participation in this year's 10X10 Photography Project. 10X10 is an annual art exhibit and book curated by James Fowler and produced each year to mark Pride Month. Each year, ten queer and trans photographers are selected to take portraits of ten queer and trans people whom they wish to celebrate for their contributions to the arts. Watch the full series here!


Gabrielle Zilkha is an award-winning director and producer with experience in scripted, documentary and interactive content. She comes from a family of funny neurotics in Montreal and currently resides in Toronto.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?