A Young Artist Invents a Fictional World to Explore Questions of Race, Culture, and Conflict

Nov 15, 2016 12:18AM
​A Change of Seasons: The Coup D’etat, 2016
Swerdlow Art Group

For Al Vieno James, King’s Landing is not a place you’ll find on a map. It’s a place in the Land of the Black Sun, a fictional world of his own creation. It’s a place with its own wars, its own language. (It is not, however, the capital of Westeros.) It’s a place James represents through vivid mixed-media collages made of paper, textiles, and things like plastic diamonds and swatches of silk, hemp rope and leather thread, gold string, house paint, and maps of the real world.

“Throughout history,” the artist has said, “geography has decided who is wealthy and full, who is poor and hungry, and who wins wars.” A sense of place, whether real or imagined, is central to James’s practice, especially his new body of work, “Return to King’s Landing.”

James uses hot glue to apply various materials onto reclaimed wooden panels or, in the case of of a piece like ​How the King Lynched Himself (2016), onto canvas he stretches like animal hide between reclaimed wooden beams. These assemblage paintings, on view at Swerdlow Art Group in Miami, are accompanied by a series of hand-made weapons, shields, war stage maps, and sketchbooks.

​How the King Lynched Himself, 2016
Swerdlow Art Group

The effect is colorful, chaotic, and tactile—fittingly riotous, given James’s inspirations. He made his recent works, as he has said, “in response to my perception of the current state of race relations in America, the current wars going on in the Middle East, the ancient wars waged between the West and Middle East, the dichotomy between what is considered valuable and valueless, and our world’s long history of oppressive and corrupt monarchies and governmental systems.”

James, who is currently pursuing a BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York, cites several well-known books as creative inspirations, including The Art of War by Sun Tzu and Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel.

He also approaches the subject of cross-cultural conflict with a deep understanding of his personal heritage, referring to himself as “an American artist of African and Near Eastern diaspora.” And it’s clear that his creation of a fictional land is more than a singular project or a passing fancy. He also describes himself as “an Oracle from the Land of the Black Sun.”

And though James is young in comparison to many artists currently showing in Miami galleries, he has already demonstrated a commitment to investigating tough questions about politics, race, class, and human nature. Earlier this year, he participated in an artist residency at Studio Kura in Fukuoka, Japan, an experience that yielded a body of work entitled “Of Rice and Cotton.” As in “Return to King’s Landing,” James used a range of materials—in this case, locally grown rice, hand-picked cotton, voodoo dolls, denim, and silk, to name a few. He also grappled with loaded topics, such as the parallel history of enslavement in Japan and America.

James may be young, but, as he’s quick to point out, time doesn’t exist in his imagined world. “My goal,” he has said, “is to achieve transcendence of time. I want my work to serve as a window in between the past and present. I want it to cross cultures and tell the collective story of all nations, cultures, and peoples from our origins in the Rift Valleys of Africa, to where we reside today.”

—Bridget Gleeson

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