Visual artist Sydonne Warren remembers being picked on in school for her hair and the colour of her skin. Growing up, her classmates told her things like “your skin looks like poo” and “you have a hell of a sunburn.” The teasing also included throwing up gang signs at her when she had her hair in braids.

But the most embarrassing moment for her happened in eighth grade during “crazy hair day” while attending Annie Gale School in Calgary. Students were allowed to come to class with their locks twisted, tied and coloured in unusual ways.

That day, she arrived at school in a traditional Jamaican hairstyle, something she would never deem crazy.

“Are you participating today?” her teacher asked.

Warren said no in disbelief. But her peers didn’t know that.

Afterward, some of her classmates put on fake Jamaican accents to make comments on the appearance of her hair.

“That day was hell,” she says. “I felt really awkward and different. Even now, if I get comments on my hair, I’ll remember it.”

Warren didn’t start speaking up about her own experiences with racism until this year, but her artwork has always centered on Black people and their culture. She’s now used her self-taught skills to complete a Black Lives Matter mural in Kensington in the hopes of making an impact in the community.

Easier to keep moving

Warren, who was born in May Pen Jamaica in 1992 and moved to Calgary when she was three years old, says, in the past, it was easier to act like the microaggressions she faces didn’t happen.

“I just kept it moving, kept it pushing,” she says, noting that some Black people don’t always speak out about what happens to them. 

But now Warren says, “What aids the problem [of racism against Black people] is not ever addressing it.” 

That’s exactly what her mural, Don’t Shoot the Messenger does. It was finished on Oct. 6 and directly addresses racism against Black people.

“I really encourage people to see it as an ‘us’ problem and not a ‘them’ problem. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s on a macro level or micro level, there is still discrimination going on and it needs to end.”

Sydonne Warren

Warren was commissioned to do the mural as a response to the backlash that art production company Pink Flamingo faced for their plans to paint over the 1st Street and 7th Avenue S.E. mural with art conveying systemic racism.

The backlash on social media included racially-charged language and death threats to the artists, forcing Pink Flamingo to postpone the project.

“It was crazy because this is just a painting and people’s lives are getting threatened over this. It’s escalated too far,” Warren says.

Warren felt the aggressors were trying to silence the Black Lives Matter movement and designed her mural to reflect that.

“I decided to use myself to represent an artist and a black person. [In the mural] I use my hands to make a dove symbol, which would be a call out to the other mural that they were going to cover up which also had a dove to show that we as artists are being targeted for just sharing a message.”

Critics don’t understand

Warren also included in the mural the words, “Black Lives Matter,” painted boldly in yellow.

She says that’s the main message she wants to get across, and it will always spread despite any opposition.

While the mural has been well received by the broader community, some disapproving members of the public have messaged Warren on social media saying the mural should read “all lives matter”.

“They just don’t understand what Black Lives Matter means. This is not an angry thing we’re doing. It’s more of an empowerment thing,” says Warren, adding that some people don’t believe that there’s any discrimination against black people in Calgary. 

“I have friends who have been called the N-word. They’ve been called porch monkeys. People have made derogatory jokes about black people in my presence and their presence.” 

The racism goes further than verbal abuse; Warren knows Black people who weren’t allowed into bars and clubs around the city, despite following proper dress code, or who were pulled over by cops for no reason while driving.

Sydonne Warren put herself in her mural design as a call out to other artists who hope to spread the message that Black lives matter through art. PHOTO: TINA AMINI

“I really encourage people to see it as an ‘us’ problem and not a ‘them’ problem. Because it doesn’t matter if it’s on a macro level or micro level, there is still discrimination going on and it needs to end.”

Warren says that some Calgarians turn a blind eye to racism because they think this treatment is acceptable.

She hopes the mural will encourage people with different opinions to start conversations surrounding racism and get educated on the matter.

“The more you talk about it, the more your questions are answered. One person who might be against Black Lives Matter could talk to someone who is for it, and they could come to an understanding of what it actually means.”

Celebrating the Black experience

Warren, who grew up with a passion for art and is now pursuing her bachelor’s degree in graphic design at Alberta University of the Arts, has not only used her art to address issues that Black people face, but to celebrate the Black experience.

“The art pieces I create have always been centred around being Black because that’s just what I identify with the most,” says Warren.

In addition to her mural in Kensington, she has been commissioned to do other large-scale abstract paintings including the YYC Magic Walk and YYC Block Party installation through her business SydTheArtiste.

Warren has not only made her mark in Calgary as an artist but she also earned the title Mrs. Calgary 2020 in the August Miss and Mrs. Calgary Pageants.

Since winning the title, Warren says that she has gotten more opportunities to engage with the community and is working on a new project with the Jamaican Canadian Association. 

One of Warren’s defining moments happened in 2017 when she decided she will never work in a field that’s unrelated to art after quitting her retail job as a visual merchandiser.

“I wanted to utilize my creativity, but it was more structured than I expected. I felt like I was heavily encouraged to micromanage people, and that’s just not my style.”

Warren says that experience coupled with her business gaining popularity and winning the pageant has gotten her interested in starting other art-focused projects that encourage community involvement.

“Once you start doing things for your community, you’ll see your life change. Things just change for the better.”