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Las Vegas artist Q'shaundra James explores Black experiences through portraiture

Instagram: @Little_TroubleMaker
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Posted at 1:17 PM, Oct 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-03 00:47:39-04

LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — Q’shaundra James is a storyteller.

“I love graphic novels and comic books. I'm a DC fan,” said James, who is in the early stages of writing and illustrating her own graphic novel.

She also writes short stories. “I write science fiction, even though I'm not a scientist. So I do a lot of research for that. It's also philosophical."

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Although James is a writer, some of the most important stories she has to tell do not involve writing at all.

James is an award-winning artist who uses her portrait paintings to start conversations.

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Artwork by Q'shaundra James. (Source: Q'shaundra James)

'The Veil' in her work

"I want people to realize that there is no monolithic way to be Black, that there is a multitude of ways to express that type of culture," she said.

"And also, it's not weird for a Black artist to paint Black people because I get that question a lot.”

James grew up in Las Vegas and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in English and Fine Arts from UNLV. It was there she was introduced to W. E. B. Du Bois.

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"I took a Black literature class and I discovered his essay 'The Souls of Black Folk,'" said James. In his essay, the sociologist, historian and civil rights activist writes about "the Veil.”

“Du Bois describes 'the Veil' as being a piece of cloth that every African American is born with," she explained, "and it distorts the image of themselves when looking at the mirror and their image for onlookers.”

It’s a concept James explores in her paintings. Oftentimes, you’ll see a prominent veil in the background. She says she grants her subjects clarity, pulling back the fabric from their eyes.

"What he's saying is that the Black individual is gifted with sight and double consciousness and can see what other people can’t," she said.

Objects as metaphors

James also likes to paint people holding objects. Take the painting of her niece, Skyler, below.

In the painting, Skyler is holding a "Sailer Moon" rod. As James explains, in the manga series, when Usagi, or Sailer Moon, discovers the wand she becomes empowered.

"She discovers that she's a princess,” said James.

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Artwork by Q'shaundra James. (Source: Q'shaundra James)

For kids in school, James points out that African American history usually starts with slavery.

"It makes people believe that there was nothing that came before that," she said. "Being a Black student, you have to do your own discovery, finding out that we have royalty, we have doctors, we have scientists, we have artists—a long lineage of it.”

It wasn’t until 2018 that theaters across the country screened a film with the first mainstream Black superhero in "Black Panther."

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"A lot of times, dark skin is associated with inherently evil or bad, and you can't typically be a superhero,” said James. In one of her portraits, below, she painted her second cousin holding a "Black Panther" comic book.

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Artwork by Q'shaundra James. (Source: Q'shaundra James)

"People were very excited to see a superhero on the silver screen. We have 'Blade' but we never had like a cookie-cutter superhero before.”

If her work looks familiar, it might be because she was one of the top three finalists in Park West’s "Made in Vegas” competition. While she didn’t take the top spot, she certainly didn't lose anything. The gallery was so impressed with her work that they offered her a contract anyway.

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Her third submission for that contest was of another second cousin, this one holding a purple rabbit missing its foot.

"I was playing on the concept of the exploitation of the Black body," explained James, "in comparison to the rabbit, where it's supposed to be lucky for its foot. But it's a contradiction because how lucky you can be without your foot?”

Specifically, James points to professional sports for this metaphor. "Black people being exploited for their physique and not being valued for their opinion, like basketball players.”

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Artwork by Q'shaundra James. (Source: Q'shaundra James)

Helping others find their voice

James' work has a lot to say and while the young artist has clearly found a voice on the canvas, she’s helping others find their voices too as a teacher.

She says she has worked with middle and high school students, but most recently she taught an art class for active adults at the Doolittle Senior Center on North J Street near Lake Mead Boulevard.

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"She's a wonderful teacher,” said Phyllis Finney, one of her students. Finney is also a writer and decided to take the class to help with some illustrations for her book.

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Phyllis Finney (left) paints alongside Velma Reed (right). Both are art students of Q'shaundra James at the Doolittle Senior Center.

"Sometimes you didn't even realize these colors would be beautiful together and shapes that you didn't even pay attention to, some of them that you see every day that you're walking down the street and you never pay attention to them," said Finney. "She brought all of that to our attention."

For James, the learning goes both ways.

"Whenever you're teaching there's always an exchange of information. I feel like I'm learning a lot more about the history of Las Vegas through them," she said, pointing to the wisdom of the students in her class.

Where to find her work

You can find Q'shaunrda James' work at the following locations in the Las Vegas area:

  • The Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art at UNLV as part of Erica Vital-Lazare's "Seeing/Seen" exhibition. The museum is located at 4505 South Maryland Parkway.
  • A billboard at 3152 South Highland Drive near Interstate 15 and Desert Inn Road. The billboard is part of a public art project powered by Meow Wolf and SaveArtSpace.
  • Las Vegas City Hall at 495 South Main Street in Las Vegas.
  • Her work was previously featured in Henderson City Hall and at Park West Gallery inside Caesars Palace.

Learn more on qshaundrajames.com and follow her on Instagram at @little_troublemaker.

This story is from our "Las Vegas Art Scene" segment in our newly-launched dedicated digital show "How to Vegas." Watch "How to Vegas" at 10:30 p.m. on Fridays -- and throughout the weekend -- using the KTNV app on your favorite streaming device.