I have always loved Kehinde Wiley’s work. For those not familiar, Wiley makes large-scale painted portraits of black men, in poses and set in backgrounds that reference grand renaissance portraits or other art historical precedents. The ones I’d seen before very explicitly appropriated famous paintings, like David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps:
I loved this intertwining of historical and modern representations of pride and masculinity, and the subtle details meant to emphasize this: look closely, and you can almost always find sperm depicted somewhere, often on the imitation historical frames that Wiley makes to go with the paintings.
I was unfamiliar with his World Stage series, in which he travels around the world, to locations he picks for their political or cultural interest, and makes a series of portraits of the “black and brown people” (his words) around the world, and choosing decorative backgrounds that reference the local culture and history.
Appropriately, he exhibited “The World Stage: Israel” at the Jewish Museum, on the occasion of their purchase of a work from the series that used a Jewish paper cut in their collection as the background.
It was a small exhibition, but showed this and many other works from the series, along with the paper cuts and embroideries from the museum’s collection that showed the sources, direct or indirect, of the imagery Wiley used, though as in the work above, Wiley’s color schemes were greatly keyed up. I walked in on a tour of the show, in which the tour guide said these embroideries were typically a feminine handicraft. Given Wiley’s focus on masculine pride, I found this an interesting juxtaposition. (I regret that I just missed his first exhibition of female portraits.)
The paintings themselves were good, but they didn’t excite me as much as the more traditionally art historical ones–call it the thrill of recognition, of “I get it! I get it!”
The most interesting aspect of the show, actually, was a short video at the end, interviewing Wiley as well as some of his models and illuminating his process (including his meticulous direction of their unnatural poses). Forgive the metaphor, but it really did bring his subjects to life, in ways that enhanced the portraits retroactively. One focal point was Kalkidan, a rapper whose songs formed the soundtrack to the video. Another great scene saw Wiley entering a nightclub in search of subjects, where he found white Israelis in dreadlocks and Bob Marley t-shirts, or Chicago Bulls jerseys.
Wiley articulated his interested in not just the diaspora of “brown and black people,” but in the globalization of African American culture, which then is reused and reinterpreted in its local context. Kalkidan explained in his own way, both in speech and in his raps, that hip hop is an expression of pride in his identity (“Father Israel and Mother Africa”), as well as a shield against those who would try to bring him down. Wiley explained that the presence of Ethiopians is deeply rooted in modern Israel, but often overlooked, and that their experience of marginality is similar to that of black Americans.
As I indicated, the story behind the paintings was a bit more interesting than the paintings, but they are still enjoyable. They’re certainly very well made, though I think the garish colors and dense patterning prevented me from wanting to inspect them closely for a prolonged period of time.