Coming across a Kehinde Wiley painting in a museum is an unforgettable experience. All at once you recognize visual conventions of historical European oil painting, including the theatrical poses of power, mixed with opulent patterns, the obsessive rendering of the texture and folds of fabric, and the rendering of lush light and color. Yet these portraits are also as clearly contemporary, as they are echoes from the past. In this, past and present collide into a moment that is both melodious and a cacophony you cannot turn away from. As Roberta Smith of the New York Times explains, “You can love or hate Kehinde Wiley’s bright, brash, history-laden, kitsch-tinged portraits of confident, even imperious young black men and women. But it is hard to ignore them…”
As Wiley, an African-American raised in Los Angeles, explained in a 2015 interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish,
“What I wanted to do was to look at the powerlessness that I felt as — and continue to feel at times — as a black man in the American streets. I know what it feels like to walk through the streets, knowing what it is to be in this body, and how certain people respond to that body. This dissonance between the world that you know, and then what you mean as a symbol in public, that strange, uncanny feeling of having to adjust for … this double consciousness.”
Through-out history the power to be seen or not seen, to control your image, images that would likely outlast you, has been dominated by the wealthy and powerful. The type of historical paintings Wiley is mimicking were created primary at the behest and patronage of wealthy and powerful European men. Speaking of patrons of painting during the Renaissance, anthropologist Levi-Strauss explained it as, “…immense fortunes were being amassed in Florence and elsewhere, and rich Italian merchants looked upon painters as agents, who allowed them to confirm their possession of all that was beautiful and desirable in the world (Berger 86).” John Berger goes further in suggesting that the art of any period serves the idealogical interests of the ruling class (86). Africans, indigenous people, and the institutions of slavery and colonization that were unfolding globally when many of these traditional European master works were created, were rare subject matter. The dominance of Western art in art history has habituated us to expect the visual conventions of these paintings. To see bodies of African descent, in essence, inhabit scenes of European royalty or history painting creates a conflicted reaction of both familiarity and tension.
Wiley exploits the tropes of art history and provocatively flips our expectations of visual conventions, scenes and narratives only represented by white bodies, are replaced with the supple bodies of black or brown youths (Guzman). More recently he has expanded the portraits beyond where he began in Brooklyn, New York, to a contemporary global interplay with art historic traditions, by using men and women from Africa, Brazil, Israel, Palestine as portrait subjects (Guzman).
Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting Services and Penguin Books, 1972. Print
Guzman, Alissa. Kehinde Wiley’s “Politics of Perception”. Hyperallergic, 22 April 2015. Web. 21 August 2015.
Smith, Roberta. Review: ‘Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic’ at the Brooklyn Museum. New York Times, 19 February 2015. Web. 21 August 2015.
The Exquisite Dissonance of Kehinde Wiley. National Public Radio, 22 May 2015. Web. 21 August 2015.