Syrus Marcus Ware on: intersectionality, story-telling, and disability arts movements

Syrus Marcus Ware is a visual artist, community activist, researcher, youth-advocate and educator. He is the Program Coordinator of the AGO Youth Program, Art Gallery of Ontario.  Read more about Syrus below.


Image of Syrus Marcus Ware

SITE-SPECIFIC: What’s missing from mainstream discourses of disability? How does this play out within art and design spaces?

SYRUS MARCUS WARE: In my experience, there is a lack of intersectional analysis in mainstream disability discourse. For those of us who are part of multiple communities, who identify with multiple identities, it can be very limiting to articulate our experiences one-dimensionally. We need a disability discourse that talks about gender, that talks about the ways that we experience racialization, that talks about sexuality. We need this because this intersectional approach will make for stronger analysis, stronger research, stronger frameworks for understanding marginality. We also need this approach because it pushes the theory to be what we need it to be: something larger than one-sided analysis, something that helps us change the world that we live in, into something that is built by and for all of us. If we talk about revolution, social change, reimagining the world to look and feel different than it currently does- we need to all be part of that conversation to help imagine something new together. Theory can help push us to this place, but it is essential that it considers the ways in which structural and systemic oppressions are linked and connected.

Within art and design spaces, we can’t limit the discussion of disability to be a question of access. It is about so much more than access! We need to talk about the ways that art and design can help us imagine new possibilities for society, yes for physical spaces and objects- making them useable by all-but more largely to help us imagine completely new ways of interacting with each other and our environments. Art and design needs to be something that talks about difference, that helps us ‘relate across difference’ as Audre Lorde suggests.

S: In the past, you have talked about the importance of creating space for the back stories of artists’ lives in order to understand their work. Can you share your thoughts on the role of social/biographical context in the process of interpretation? What are some critical issues that we should be mindful of in thinking through the politics and ethics of personal narrative and disclosure in art making?

W: When hosting a community advisory meeting with disability communities engaged with the AGO, one of the participants stated that one of the problems with art galleries and museums around disability is that we don’t tell the stories of disability at the core of a lot of artists lives. We may have a large collection of work by artists who are psychiatric survivors, for e.g. but this is not part of the interpretation when showing their work. He urged all museums to consider how to tell stories of disability in our day to day work, when celebrating the lives of artists in our collections. I thought that this was a great observation and challenge to those of us working within these settings.

However, I also have been thinking about the ways that artists with disabilities are often expected to disclose about their experiences of disability as part of their art making process. The act of disclosing is not what is at issue for me- to be clear- but rather the idea that we ‘need to know’ that the artist is disabled as part of ‘understanding’ or ‘appreciating’ their work.

S: Beyond creating accessible spaces, what can artists, educators and institutions be doing to respond to the growing disability arts movement?

W: We need to broaden our understanding of how art is made, and by whom! By doing so, we open up the possibility that learning about artistic practice can happen outside of a formal drawing class that relies on all participants being able to see with their eyes; outside of formal lectures that require us to be able to hear the lecturers words with our ears; outside of lengthy symposia that require undivided focused prolonged attention or resting/sitting- and it also would allow for us to build in great disability theory pedagogy into our work. Everyone could be taught how to do verbal descriptions as part of their required course content, everyone could learn how to caption their video work, everyone could learn about universal design- not as extra or extraneous curricula, but as core to what it is to be an artist.

Our courses, our schools, our student body would be stronger because of it- we would truly be a hotbed of new possibilities, of change and true creativity!

S: What is the role of creativity in advancing equity?

W: The only way that we can address issues of injustice, or inequity is through creatively thinking through this challenge. As an artist and activist, I know personally how connected creativity is to movement building and social change and, similarly, how much social issues in the world can influence one’s artistic practice. There is a tremendous history of bringing creativity and advancing equity together- whether we are looking at Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s political challenge “The Allegory of Good and Bad Government” in the Palazzo of Siena from 1339, or Emory Douglas’ art made as the “revolutionary artist of the Black Panther Party” since the late 1960s, or things like the Art For Real Change Festival (ARCFest) here in Toronto in 2004 and 2006.

Art is central to movement building, and social movements have inspired artists since the dawn of creativity!

Syrus’s questions to Site-Specific readers. Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

  1. What are the ways that your creativity/artistic process is impacted by your experience of disability? By your experience of difference?
  2. What would an ideal learning environment be for you? What would the days look like? What would the year entail? Describe how you learn best!
  3. How has an intersectional approach informed your work? Do you talk about being from a regional area outside of Toronto and how this affects your experience of being queer, for e.g.? How being a person of colour has affected your experience of class? How gender has impacted on your experience of disability? What are your intersections? How do they inform your artistic practice?

About Syrus Marcus Ware:
As a visual artist, Syrus works within the mediums of painting, installation and performance to challenge systemic oppression.  Syrus’ work explores the spaces between and around identities; acting as provocations to our understandings of gender, sexuality and race.   His work has been exhibited at the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), Gladstone Hotel, ASpace Gallery, Harbourfront Centre, SPIN Gallery and other galleries across the city. His work has been reproduced in FUSE Magazine, The Globe and Mail, THIS Magazine, Blackness and Sexualities amongst others. His work has also been included in several academic journals including Small Axe and Women and Environment International.

Syrus recently co-edited an issue of the Journal of Museum Education entitled Building Diversity in Museums, which focused on strategies for diversifying galleries and museums internationally.  Syrus’ chapter in Who’s Your Daddy?: And Other Writings on Queer Parenting (Sumach Press, 2008) entitled, “Going Boldly Where Few Men Have Gone Before: One Trans Man’s Experience of Fertility Clinics” and his co-authored chapter, “How Disability Studies Stays White and What Kind of White it Stays” are part of curricula at several colleges and universities. He is currently co-editing a book chapter (with Zack Marshall) about disability, Deaf culture and trans identities in the forthcoming Trans Bodies, Trans Selves (2013).

 In 2005, Syrus was voted “Best Queer Activist” by Now Magazine, and in 2012 he was awarded the Steinert and Ferreiro Award for LGBT community leadership and activism. For the past 6 years, Syrus has worked with Blackness Yes! to produce Blockorama (the black queer and trans stage at Pride), and other related events throughout the year. Syrus is also a founding member of the Prison Justice Action Committee of Toronto. Syrus is a program committee member for Mayworks Festival, and is a past board member of the FUSE magazine. For the past 15 years, Syrus has hosted the weekly radio segment, “Resistance on the Sound Dial” heard each Saturday on CIUT 89.5FM. He is a founding member of the Transparent-cy Working Group at The 519 Community Centre. He helped to initiate the Trans-Fathers 2B course- the first course for trans men considering parenting in North America. Syrus is also a member of the Gay/Bi Trans Men’s HIV Prevention Working Group for the Ontario AIDS Bureau and one of the creators of “Primed: A Back Pocket Guide for Trans Guys and the Guys Who Dig ‘Em”.

 Syrus holds degrees in Art History, Visual Studies and a Masters in Sociology and Equity Studies, University of Toronto.  

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