Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.-Kehinde Wiley
I think that an interesting way to examine racism and its various permutations within the U.S., is to look at art created by Black American artists. In my experience, more museums have begun to feature exhibits by black artists and many of these exhibitions examine the lived experience of black folks living in the U.S. One artist that has appeared in a few different exhibitions I’ve been to, and has always caught my attention, is Kehinde Wiley. Although his body of work is vast, he is probably best known for his portrait of Obama (unveiled at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery), among a variety of other celebrities. His art is striking, painted on canvases that cover museum walls; it features incredibly detailed images of black bodies against complex, colorful, wallpaper-like backgrounds.
The thing that I find particularly interesting about Kehinde’s work is his inspiration. He is typically inspired by Classical European paintings, or “Old Master” paintings, featuring white people, of course. He cites his traditional art training (learning by copying images) for drawing his eye to this body of work, and in many ways his paintings continue this imitation. However, rather than feature white bodies, he chooses to feature black ones, more specifically black men. His idea is to reposition black male bodies in art, placing them in the positions and poses of noblemen, royalty, aristocrats and colonial masters. His work not only functions to challenge the representation of black male bodies in art, but also to interrupt and challenge white modes of looking and being looked at.
Another particularly interesting aspect of Kehinde’s work is the way he casts his models. In the case of almost all his work, he casts his models on the streets. He began using photos of young men from Harlem, but as his influence has expanded he has been able to use models found on the streets of Brazil, Nigeria, India and China. He asks his models to assume poses from the historical paintings that he uses as inspiration, and photographs them. Not only does he use their faces for is paintings but their clothing as well, showing beauty and power in the ordinary and everyday life of his models.
Wiley’s painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, exemplifies his goals. After looking at his work you can see that, it is heavily based upon Jacques-Louis David’s 1801 portrait, Napoleon Crossing the Alps. The similarities are clear, the position, the white horse, the yellow robe, and more. But of course, the body in Kehinde’s painting is not that of Napoleon, and it is not that of a celebrity, it is a black man found and photographed on the streets. He paints his clothing as he photographed him, replacing Napoleons tight pants, boots, gloves and tailcoat, with a baggy two-piece camo outfit, complete with a bandana and timberlands. He places his subjects in a pose of power, which allows him to claim a status he would typically not hold in U.S. culture. This image also gives Wiley a way to reclaim the “Old Master” paintings he was trained with, by placing a black man at the center of an art form that historically features white men.
All in all, I think that Kehinde Wiley’s work is an interesting study a way in which a black artist addresses racism in art. Wiley’s reclamation of Classical European paintings places black bodies at the center of a historically white art form, while challenging stereotypes held about black male bodies by portraying them as powerful, beautiful and versatile. It is an interesting disruption of the traditional, challenging the whiteness the permeates through every art form with beautiful, complex, and stunning works of art. What is interesting to you about Kehinde Wiley’s work? Can you think of other black artists? Do they have a similar aim?