Group of youth standing together

Artists Express the Heart and Soul of Syracuse’s 15th Ward: Black Artist Collective

Giving Voice Winter 2024: Grantee Story

Photo Above: Janiah Shadreem (top row, second from the right) and Martikah Williams (bottom left), pose with other high school student artists at the Community Library of Dewitt and Jamesville

Painting of Black Artist Collective participant
Janiah Shadreem’s art portrait, “Soul in Hand”

As Janiah Shadreem learned about Syracuse’s former 15th Ward, she wanted to know more about the people who lived and laughed and loved there. The predominately Black neighborhood was decimated in the 1960s to make way for the elevated part of Interstate 81 through the city. Syracuse’s urban renewal program displaced about 1,300 people and bulldozed dozens of Black-owned business and community organizations.

“It was hard to find pictures,” said Shadreem, a senior at the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central. “People did not document it. If there’s really nothing about that time period, it means no one really cares about it. That’s why it’s important to create our art and talk about the 15th Ward.”

Shadreem was one of four high school student artists paired with local professional artists to study, discuss and create art inspired by the past, present and future of the 15th Ward. The Community Foundation supported Black Artist Collective CNY, Inc.’s (BAC) initiative, which culminated in “Paired Pieces Exhibition,” a multidisciplinary show that debuted this past summer at the Community Library of DeWitt and Jamesville.

Shadreem eventually found an article about music in the 15th Ward. “The people were full of life,” she said. “I saw this picture of one woman. She was really beautiful.” She researched fashions of the era, then used digital art to create a portrait she named “Soul in Hand.” The Black woman — who reminds Shadreem of herself — wears large, shiny gold hoop earrings and holds blue flames.

Black Artist Collective painting
Jaleel Campbell’s, artwork, “Tomorrow’s Leaders”

“I love her face,” she said “It’s hopeful and shows calmness and acceptance of other people. I wanted to show that what you do with your soul, you hold in your hand and want to put it out there.”

That’s exactly what the eight artists did, said Martikah Williams, Shadreem’s mentor and a founding member of Black Artist Collective. “We wanted to think about how art could help us move forward and face the history of the 15th Ward,” she said. The exhibit features several paintings, a collection of white and black plates with outlines of the 15th Ward’s boundaries, poetry, and a quartet of fabric dolls.

Williams moved to Syracuse at 11 with her mother, who was born here. “When we first came here my mother said when we were driving on I-81 that the highway was the dividing line between wealth on the hill and the rest of us,” she remembered. Debates about tearing down part of I-81 spurred Williams to learn more. “When I learned the history and could talk about it in an immersive way, I wanted to bring others in and break this cycle of not knowing about it.”

Now when Williams drives I-81, she notices the potholes and bumps. “We will always have to reconcile with it as long as we’re physically seeing it and remembering it,” she said. “There’s so much this city and this community have to offer and people can just drive through and miss it.”

Black Artist Collective painting
Charles DeShields’ untitled artwork

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