Vieno James (b. 1996) may be a young artist, but his work is informed by a profound history of craftsmanship and race relations. Using mostly found objects, James creates works that combine the raw quality of pre-historic weaponry with the highbrow abstract aesthetic of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Recently named one of White Hot Magazine’s “Artists You Need to Follow on Instagram,” Vieno James’ star is quickly rising in the art world. We spoke with Vieno James to learn more about what inspires his work.
James lives and works in New York City. Drawing from paleo-anthropology, anthropology, geography, history, shamanism, philosophy, and his life experiences, James utilizes these sources of inspiration to create assemblages, paintings, performance art, and music that lie within a fictional world called “The Land of the Black Sun.” At the School of Visual Arts, he became a recipient of the C.H. Rhodes Scholarship. James has exhibited in Georgia, New York, New Jersey, Virginia and Fukuoka, Japan.
Deianira Tolema: You mention Basquiat as an inspiration. What was it that originally drew you to his work? Are there any other artists whose work has heavily influenced your own?
Vieno James: His directness drew me in. Basquiat is a legend and a forefather to my work along with Picasso, Rauschenberg, Akira Toriyama, Hokusai, and Bill Watterson. They all push me to go further with my art.
DT: Your work all seems to relate back to your fictional ‘Land of the Black Sun’ universe. Can you tell us a bit more about how this universe came to be and who resides in it?
VJ: Everything I want resides in the “Land of the Black Sun”. Like a terminus, the ‘Land of the Black Sun’ allows me to link multiple-sources of information together. When compiled, I can create an allegorical reflection of our world.
DT: A lot of your work is made from found materials. Where do you find the raw materials to make your work?
VJ: Most times, I know what materials I need when I sketch. So, the found objects gathered around NYC are already ‘found’ in a sense before they’re even discovered.
DT: What is the significance of using found materials as opposed to more traditional mediums?
VJ: I use both traditional and non-traditional materials to reflect the conceptual content of the work. Sometimes paint and oil pastels are the vehicles that drive the subject matter by allowing me to create a recognizable image that resonates with viewers. Other times, I think that using non traditional materials allows me to imbed the work with symbolic meaning. I use these non traditional materials to serve the work aesthetically and for the conceptual content they carry.
DT: Tell us a bit about your artistic process. Do you come up with the theme for a show first and create works around that, or do you let the theme reveal itself organically through the process?
VJ: I always know what I’m going to create before I create it. I grew up reading and drawing manga all the time. The practice of drawing manga requires the artist to complete a four step process; creating a concept, thumbnailing, sketching it out on printer paper, then drawing and inking the final version on strathmore.
DT: Do you choose materials based on a pre-designed idea for a piece, or do you collect your raw materials first and allow them to guide your work?
VJ: I usually have a materials list when I start and I only allow myself to choose off of it. It challenges me to try and keep one set of materials interesting over multiple pieces. I think too many non specific or random materials can confuse the work and water down my message.
DT: You have done a decent amount of travelling, both within the US and internationally. How have your experiences with travelling to new places and interacting with new cultures influenced your artistic practice?
VJ: Every time I travel I’m disillusioned about many of the thoughts I carry around. I shed some of the brutish aspects of my own culture and replace them with positive things I see in other cultures.
DT: Race is a recurring theme throughout your work. This is particularly important now, given the way Trump and his alt-right following have legitimized white supremacy as a valid political opinion in the U.S. today. Does the art community have a responsibility to address these issues head on?
VJ: I think race is always interesting to use as subject matter when it’s not done in a tacky way. We know racism did not start and will not end with the alt-right movement or with Trump.
DT: Do you have any exciting upcoming projects you can tell us about?
VJ: Yes! Right now I’m creating a body of work inspired by my trips to Cairo, Luxor, Kuwait, Florence, and Venice. While abroad I spent long periods of time in isolation. I had a limited ability to speak to the people in these cities because I didn’t know their language, I barely understood their cultures, and I had trouble facing the realities of third world politics. This was especially true when I lived in Cairo for a month. I left America with the bombastic idea of “changing the planet overnight” (or at least within two to three years), and realized halfway through my trip that I needed to confront my own demons before taking on the larger evils of the world; my own grievances with the death of my father, betrayals at home, relationships, and my ego. This introspection led to the creation of my current body of work “Rise of the Black Sun” that uses materials I gathered during my travels, but the content essentially focuses on metaphorical accounts of my personal tragedies. I will eventually go back to creating political art again, but for now I still need to process all that I experienced last summer.