The portraits of Kehinde Wiley redefine the art of the past

The New York-based artist’s artworks are explicitly inspired by great classics of European painting, but they redefine their imagery as they feature new heroes with black bodies. 

This articleis published in  Domus 1081, on newsstands in July 2023

Memories live in our mind and are alive and mutable; they are dynamic and evolve. They have a capacity to redefine our perspective on the past and act as an engine to drive social change. Art, design and architecture are each silent witnesses to culture and civilisation, and memory works to relate them all through a context of associations. They too become mutable: the meaning of a work of art or architecture shifts with its sociopolitical space and time.

Wiley’s work takes advantage of, and amplifies, this instability. His paintings reference the European tradition of portraiture that depicted people in power in the manner and fashion of their time. His work exploits this association of historical portraiture with status, power and superiority to celebrate and memorialise those whom such power historically sought to deny and conceal. 

View of the exhibition “A New Republic”, Brooklyn Museum, 2015. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

In recent exhibitions, including “A New Republic” at the Brooklyn Museum, 2015, Wiley preserves the “pose” or a posture of the figures in European portraits, voids them and replaces them with black bodies. These heroes, as objects of adoration, are transfigured into new protagonists and the results are jarring, engaging, surprising, shocking and delightful. The paintings are an enactment of an established ritual of grandeur – having one’s portrait taken – to promote an occupation of the voided white space by black bodies, squarely in the territory of the “Old Masters”.

The Western canon in art history is highly criticised for its exclusivity and elitism that prioritises the representation of Eurocentric whiteness. With Wiley’s brush stroke, that well-known art-historical reference, ingrained in our collective memories, transforms into a new idiom and identity. The portrait remains symbolic of the power of the subject, but the subject has been changed. Starting with the portrait of President Obama, Wiley’s botanical backgrounds introduce biographical significance to each portrait, including references to flowers and vegetables associated with places, climates and cultural histories, such as colonial plantations, for example.

Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005. Oil and enamel on canvas, 274 x 274 cm. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

 The portrait background sheds the sense of illusion prevalent in European paintings while the verdant landscape becomes the geographical locator and symbolic backdrop. In his exhibition “Havana” at Sean Kelly New York (28.4-17.6.2023) the portrait backdrops and subjects’ costumes reflect the colour and vibrancy of rapturous carnivalesque events. The foreground, middle ground and background become a collection of vines and vegetation; as tendrils they cling to the subject and their clothing, entwining all in the same history.

As one reads in the exhibition’s presentation notes: “Taken from an African or African diasporic point of view, the circus and the carnivalesque have historically been opportunities for the formerly enslaved to engage in moments of freedom and grace that were generally forbidden. The carnival, Mardi Gras, and street procession were events in which chaos could arise, love could be expressed, and a spiritual embrace of religious traditions could be manifest.” The details of the subject’s clothing and costuming reflect their culture: fashion, style, accessories and associated utilitarian or decorative objects. Just as historical portraiture relied on objects to be symbolic indicators of identity, location, hierarchy and privilege, these contemporary details speak the same referential language with radically different inflections. 

View of the exhibition “An Archaeology of Silence”, Giorgio Cini Foundation, Venice, 2022. In the foreground: Young Tarentine II (Ndeye Fatou Mbaye), 2022. Oil on canvas, 335 x 762 cm; The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia, 2022. Bronze, 637.5 x 388 x 178 cm © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris

In “An Archaeology of Silence” originally presented at the Venice Biennale in 2022 and currently on view at the De Young Museum in San Francisco (until 15 October), portraits of fallen black bodies reflect the prone and lifeless forms of sacrifices, Christ figures and saints that permeate canonical painting. Here these figures are displaced with prone black bodies evoking the raw and devastating violence enacted on those very bodies in both recent and historical memory. It is an epic presentation, but it provokes an intimate and sobering reaction, often personal and emotional. Wiley’s paintings work to dismantle systemic and structural racism and recast the necessity of a new path forward by co-opting the familiar structures that defined Western art-historical hegemony. Still, Wiley’s is a latent activism: silent, but perhaps louder than anything else. Working in sculpture too, Wiley emulates the recognised postures of memorialised figures and literally recasts them as bronze monuments. 

Kehinde Wiley in front of the entrance to Black Rock Senegal, the studio and artists’ residence he established in Dakar in 2019. Photo Kylie Corwin © Kehinde Wiley

In Rumors of War, 2019, installed at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, a young black rider dressed in contemporary streetwear strikes the same pose as a local monument depicting the Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart. Wiley’s sculpture is a memorial dedicated to the lives of black youth lost to a system of violence and repression that Stuart, during the Civil War, fought to maintain and was afterwards memorialised for. Instead, Wiley presents those made invisible by systemic violence and neglect as monumental, inspiring icons. In 2019, Wiley established Black Rock Senegal in Dakar as a studio and multidisciplinary artistin-residence programme. Île de Gorée, a small island a few miles off the coast of Dakar, was the historic location of a major shipping terminal for the Atlantic slave trade. A door on the island was called the “Door of No Return”.

Stepping beyond its threshold meant the enslaved man or woman would never return home. Wiley named the entrance door to Black Rock Senegal the “Door of Return”, announcing the return of the African diaspora to re-engage with the continent of Africa. Just as in his paintings, the memory of a place and a people is reframed, turning trauma into celebration. From behind this door, Wiley paints a bold future, positioning black and brown people to leap beyond prejudice, neglect and dismissal, using memory as a powerful tool that recalibrates old structures to build new futures.

Opening image: Kehinde Wiley, Femme Piquée Par Un Serpent (Mamadou Gueye), 2022. Oil on canvas, 335 x 762 cm. © Kehinde Wiley. Courtesy of Galerie Templon, Paris

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