Maurice James Jr.
Maurice James Jr. at Honfleur Gallery; Credit: Dorvall Bedford

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Dozens of people filled Honfleur Gallery in Anacostia on the night of March 4 for the opening reception of the Shaolin Jazz’s SOUND PATTERNS No. 8. Martial arts weapons hung from the windows at the front of the gallery to the back wall, and hardly any empty space remained as people perused the exhibition to the sound of hip-hop beats. The art comes in a variety of forms—photography, paintings, and movie posters—and was provided by seven different local visionaries. Each work is inspired by, and focused on, depicting martial arts in a Black aesthetic.

Walking into the gallery, Maurice James Jr.’s intricate graphic artwork immediately catches your eye. Lester Wallace, co-founder of creative brand Shaolin Jazz, watched as people gravitated toward James’ work throughout the night, and James quickly became the main subject of conversations.

“He’s the first artist you see when you come in,” Wallace says. “We definitely had people ask about the work and other pieces he may have. His contribution really helped make the event.”

SOUND PATTERNS No. 8 is one of two exhibits featuring James’ work. Down the street from Honfleur Gallery, some of his pieces are on display inside the Anacostia Arts Center as part of his solo exhibit, the Black Utopia Museum. The 40-year-old revolutionary artist has spent the past two years displaying his work at galleries throughout the District in an effort to showcase a reality in which Black people and Black culture represent a new pop culture.

“The objective is to inspire and start a creative conversation with Black people to understand and dig into their power,” James says. “It’s really about creating a new Black mythology.”

But how exactly is a Black mythology made? James goes about the process through his graphic art, taking various images he collects during his travels—old books, posters, or comics—and editing them together on his computer to create a new image with a new meaning. One of his pieces combines an old Trans World Airlines poster with a “Chocolate City” graphic. The new image says “FLY TWA” with the Chocolate City graphic below.

“‘Chocolate City’ as a place never had a poster saying it was a direction to go to,” James says. “You always have a poster about going to Washington, D.C., but Black people are trying to go to Chocolate City, not D.C.”

Shaolin Jazz co-founder Wallace, a DJ whose stage name is DJ 2-Tone Jones, compared James’ art to mixing music. “From a DJ standpoint, if you’re putting together the a cappella and the instrumentals, it’s one thing to just match the tempos, and it’s another to make it sound like the artist rapped or sung over that beat originally,” he says. One piece of James’ art that continues to capture Wallace’s attention (he even has the print on a sweatshirt) is a fictional polo advertisement featuring a “brother of color” on a horse. “To me, that’s kind of what his work does. It’s like a perfect, seamless blend where you don’t see the rough edges,” he says.

“It’s like a past tense form of Afrofuturism,” Wallace continues. “Afrofuturism is about seeing ourselves in the future in a way that is very empowering, and his work does the same thing but more so using elements from the past.”

James has always been driven to create, but only during the past couple of years has he shared his work publicly. During the pandemic, James spent most of his time making art and “running wild” with new designs, he says. It wasn’t until a friend suggested he find an art gallery to display his work that he finally considered the idea. He held his first show at 11:Eleven gallery in February 2021. “I wasn’t thinking I was an artist to the point where I should be in art galleries and have art shows,” James says. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I was just creating.”

Since his first exhibit, James has continued to impress people in the art world, and now venues and organizers reach out to him about showcasing his work. Jess Randolph, Anacostia Arts Center’s associate creative director, met James at the Eaton Workshop in the summer of 2021. She recalls pointing at him when they were introduced and saying, “You’re coming to Anacostia next.”

“Sometimes we depend on Black History Month to remind us how integral the Black American experience is to this country’s existence,” Randolph says. “His work does such a great job of flipping traditionally White symbols and brand expressions into his point of view.”

It was a piece depicting one of the founders of modern jazz, Thelonious Monk, with Japanese writing beside him, that caught Randolph’s eye. The piece was inspired by a poster for a Japanese summer jazz festival, and for Randolph, who has studied Japanese culture, seeing such a prominent Black creative in a Japanese aesthetic excited her. The two have worked together since to bring the Black Utopia Museum exhibit to the Anacostia Arts Center; it opened February 10 and will be on display until March 31.

The exhibit is aptly named. Much of the artwork featured consists of made-up war propaganda, movie posters, and advertisements set in the past and depicting Black people. Although Black people would have never been portrayed on such images in real life, James is retelling American history in order to show a world where Black people were allowed to be seen. He calls it a utopia because he’s changing a dark past to inspire a brighter future. “It’s time travel,” he says.

“What I’m trying to say to people is that you’ve already fought these battles, won these wars, and you’ve had success within these realms,” James adds. “It just hasn’t really been visualized in a certain way. I’m trying to visualize Black beauty and power to reignite that feeling in people to believe in themselves.”

James wants the exhibit to start a discussion about what a Black utopia could look like. His own vision is a feeling of having no fears of discrimination or a lack of representation. It’s the knowledge that your entertainment, food, and everything else around you comes from a “beautiful, Black place” and is made for “the betterment of your Black consciousness.”

In a way, according to James, the Anacostia Arts Center itself represents his idea of a Black utopia: It’s a space where people can shop at a Black-owned bookstore, eat at a Black-owned restaurant, shop for Black fashion made by Black designers, and attend events that promote, acknowledge, and support the Black community, such as the Feb. 18 Afro House Spirit Fest.

“People talk about wanting to shop at Black businesses and do all kinds of Black stuff because they want this feeling of just living in this Black world that belongs to them,” he says. “That’s what [my art] is about.”

Similarly, James is happy that both exhibits currently featuring his work are taking place in Anacostia. He believes the predominantly Black neighborhood is exactly where his art needs to be shown, and he wants to give local residents something truly special. “The people who want to see it and need to see it are right here, and that makes me extremely happy,” he says.

The art James has provided for SOUND PATTERNS No. 8 serves the same purpose as the Black Utopia Museum but does so in a different style. In order to fulfill the exhibit’s mission to show martial arts within the Black aesthetic, James made movie posters and other graphic art of Black action heroes to speak to Shaolin Jazz’s audience. All of his pieces feature the words “Black Power” translated into Mandarin.

“Black people who like martial arts films are hardcore fans of them,” James says. “They study it, and they love it, and they mimic it. With my art, I want to show those fans what it looks like if it was made just for them.”

The artist expressed both excitement and curiosity before the exhibit’s March 4 opening since he was making art for a whole new crowd; he didn’t know how exactly kung fu fans would react to his work. To Wallace, James surpassed Shaolin Jazz’s expectations. Wallace says James’ work at Honfleur Gallery and the Anacostia Arts Center achieve the same goal of depicting a perfect world for Black people.

A visitor considers Maurice James Jr.’s reimagining of The Goonies at Honfleur Gallery’s SOUND PATTERNS No. 8; Credit: Dorvall Bedford

“His art is about seeing ourselves the way we would fantasize about,” Wallace says. “We want to see ourselves with superpowers or with regalness, and what he shows us is beyond what we conceive as Black beauty.”

And James’ SOUND PATTERNS contribution speaks to more than just martial arts fans. Delma Grey-Coker, who had never heard of James before he came to SOUND PATTERNS No. 8 at a friend’s suggestion, was drawn in most by a piece that reimagines The Goonies as a Black street gang. The 1985 film was one of Grey-Coker’s favorites growing up, and he was fascinated by how James managed to transform the story into something else.

“All his stuff should be talked about in books and newsletters and word of mouth,” Grey-Coker tells City Paper. “People should know about it, and I appreciate him for making it.”

With the two exhibits running simultaneously, James anticipates the rest of March to be busy for him as he goes back-and-forth between the shows to make himself available for any visitors. He isn’t planning on stopping either and looks forward to showing his art at yet another exhibit. James just recently finished new pieces that’ll be a part of an Afrofuturism-themed gallery show called All Black Errything at Mason Exhibitions Arlington, which runs from March 24 to May 20.

James encourages people who haven’t seen his art yet to visit both Anacostia shows to get a full understanding of his work. He also asks for feedback from the Black community regarding the stories he’s creating: “Tell me how the art makes you feel,” he says. 

“This is a beautiful responsibility because once you say you’re an artist, people start looking at you to do something they’ve never seen before,” James continues. “I work in a cool pocket where some of these things don’t exist, and I get to create them so they can exist in real time for the first time. It’s dope.”

Black Utopia Museum runs through March 31 at Anacostia Arts Center. Free. 

SOUND PATTERNS No. 8 runs through April 8 at Honfleur Gallery. Free. 

All Black Errything: Pop Culture and Nostalgia from AfroFuturist Perspectives, featuring Maurice James Jr., opens March 24 with a reception and artist talk from 6 to 8 p.m. The exhibit runs through May 20 at Mason Exhibitions Arlington. Free.