Blues and jazz singer and songwriter Nina Simon famously said “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” But, what happens when art reflects the times and disrupts both time and space?
“Revisionist History: The Champions of Triumph,” an exhibit by Maurice James Jr., a self-taught contemporary artist and graphic designer exhibit showing at Eaton DC through the end of August, uses “iconography to re-cast Black Americans as victors instead of victims, as catalysts for change instead of hidden figures.”
James uses his artworks to challenge everything we’ve come to know about America — pushing us to envision an alternate reality, where Black women and men are America’s most famous heroines and heroes, rather than its most notable casualties.
A depiction of runaway slave Crispus Attucks as Captain America surfaces the hidden stories of Black soldiers, spanning the breadth of American history, who’ve risked and lost their lives to defend their country, the very country where their ancestors spent 400 years in bondage.
The genesis of these powerful concepts dates back to James’ youth.
As a child, James would explore graphic art by recreating magazine and album covers in PowerPoint and Photoshop. He also would consume comic books, movies and cartoons and dissect propaganda at museums — artistic mediums that continue to fuel his creativity and curiosity.
“[I would go] to museums as a kid and study propaganda and the usage of it,” James explains. [I’d try to] figure out how to make positive propaganda because sometimes propaganda can be made for sinister reasons. [I was] trying to figure how to make it for more positive reasons, to inspire people, to ignite that fire inside of people to fight against oppression.”
He likens this fire to channeling a “tortured side,” one that galvanizes Black people and others to embrace their heroic side and work to overcome negative forces and harmful representations.
The cumulation of his experiences nurtured his expressive impulses. It wasn’t until his mother told him he could transform his design hobby into a career that he began to perfect his craft and play in more artistic spaces — first in high school, then college.
His journey took to art school, where he dabbled in music production and film while staying close to his art. James eventually dropped out after two and a half years, before interning as a graphic designer at BET, eventually getting hired by Radio One and returning to BET. When the company shuttered its D.C. office, James decided to become an independent artist.
Fast forward to “Revisionist History,” a very personal endeavor that bears the fruit of those earlier artistic seeds. The exhibit is showing in Eaton DC, a multi-faceted hospitality space, where social justice and activism are core parts of its ethos.
Jame’s works also speak to the desire to be seen and to see one’s self in the world — whether that’s in popular culture or history books.
As a boy, James gravitated toward Black characters, including the iconic and smooth-talking smuggler Lando Calrissian, played and recently reprised by Billy Dee Williams and Donald Glover; Spawn, the tortured antihero; the film “Beverly Hills Cop,” starring Eddie Murphy; and Black Panther/T’Challa, who’s present day embodiment, by the late Chadwick Boseman, thrust Black superheroes to the forefront of Marvel’s expansion cinematic universe and exhilarated generations of Black Americans and a diverse legion of fans.
James attributes the success of the “Black Panther” franchise to the convergence of genres encapsulated in one film, including books, fantasy and science fiction and director Ryan Coogler’s ability to pay proper homage to Afro-futurism; the impact of seeing T’Challa as the king of an African country that’s reached the pinnacle of science and technology has been groundbreaking.
This notion bleeds into the Revisionist History exhibit, which is six pieces in total, including a large window display.
“I always try to focus on how I enhance that feeling in multiple genres that never really represented that,” James expresses, referencing the need to go beyond movie theaters and comic books.
He continues, describing courage, confidence, strength and beauty as the feelings he hopes, through his graphic art, to provoke in others who look, dream and question like him.
The through line of this collection of works is inviting viewers to imagine all the ways history could have played out. It’s an unintentional play on Marvel’s multiverse format and the vision of prominent directors, like Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee, who play around with the notion of revised history.
In James’ universe, Grace Jones is a boxer on the cover of Ring Magazine and a Black woman is presented as the standard of feminine beauty in a Victory poster, a take on famous wartime propaganda campaigns.
“A lot of times propaganda focused on women to draw you in to see the main story,” James says.
James also reconceptualized a Lacoste poster as a Black man slaying a dragon, something that you don’t see in film.
“As kids, [my friends and I] used to buy [Lacoste] all the time,” James shares. “We bought every major brand you could think of and I wanted to [showcase] what if the brand actually catered towards the people who bought a lot of their stuff, other than the preppy, tennis crowd. It’s made to provoke that parallel, to show history done with more fairness.”
At the heart of Jame’s exhibit is the desire to evoke conversations around representation and fairness that aren’t happening in many circles because individuals are oblivious or indifferent to history’s bias. It’s meant to engender a more harmonious investigation of America’s origins, especially the hidden stories and the ways in which the contributions of Black Americans and other minorities have been marginalized (largely) dismayed from mainstream culture.
“It makes the world better when everybody knows the history of everything.”