Review By Holly Zajur
A picture (or painting) is worth a thousand words and countless images have been produced through the eyes of white men in the Western world. The “reality” portrayed is only capable of telling tales from one perspective. On view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (June 11- September 5, 2016) places people of color inside the framework created by Western man, making their powerful presence impossible to ignore. By challenging traditional European portraiture, Wiley’s work requires viewers to question race, gender, and the power and politics of representation.
Kehinde Wiley is one of the country’s leading contemporary artists. Graduating with an MFA from Yale in 2001, he studied European Portraiture. One day when walking down the street in New York City, he came across a crumpled mug shot of an African-American man. Looking at this crumpled piece of paper, Wiley recognized the mug shot as a form of portraiture, marking a person at a specific point in time. He noticed the contrast between the portrait in his hands and the more traditional forms that hang on walls: one is positioned to demonstrate a loss of power while the other portrays privilege and prestige. Wiley decided to draw attention to this imbalance in art and society.
Through a practice called “street casting,” Wiley blatantly addresses the dynamics of power structures and identity in the world. The process involves asking African-American men walking down the street to participate in his project. Next, Wiley opened books of classical European portraiture, allowing the men to choose an image and develop a pose to be photographed. Wiley would then paint an enormous image based off of the chosen artwork and photograph of his subjects. Placing African-American men within famous works, Wiley provided agency for participants as he involved their active participation in their representation while creating an outlet to mark their place in history.
Moving through A New Republic at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, the special exhibition progresses along the timeline in which Wiley’s work was made. Beginning with all male portraiture and ending with a room of powerful women, Wiley covers content from race, sexuality, and gender. The large scale of the paintings and their decadent frames show their significance as Wiley draws attention to the absence of African-Americans in historic artwork.
Each room in the exhibit deepens the conversation on representation and power dynamics around the world. At the start of Wiley’s career, he emphasized the perception of the African-American male body as a social construct in Western culture. This idea is explored in the first room of the exhibit as well as notions of masculinity and the African-American male body. As background imagery of Baroque and Rococo overlap parts of the bodies portrayed in Wiley’s work, the men are simultaneously placed in positions of power while being associated with beauty.
Wiley expands his work beyond the African-American community, opening up complex conversations on race, power, and the politics of representation to a global scale through The World Stage. The body of work entitled The World Stage represents parts of the world that typically have a history of colonialism and “hybrid” populations. Each portrait from the region is composed of poses and compositions that reflect each country’s culture. Regions covered include China (2006), Lagos and Dakar (2008), Brazil (2008-9), Indian and Sri Lanka (2010), Israel (2011), France (2012), Jamaica (2015), and Haiti (2014).
One of the biggest jumps in Wiley’s career was when he began including woman into his portraiture in Economy of Grace (2012). While men in street casting wore casual clothes, Wiley had custom designer dresses made and hair and make-up design provided for the women. Ensuring that the women were treated as fine as his artwork, Wiley was able to portray African women as heroines and demonstrated their worthiness of fine art.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts ensured that the exhibit left its impact through their creation of “The Art Lounge” at the end of the exhibit. “The Art Lounge” is a special room full of cards with images from the exhibit and books of portraiture. The room provides comfortable seating for visitors to study portraiture further and offers cards for visitors carry as a way to remember the world through Wiley’s eyes throughout the rest of the museum’s collection. This unique and interactive space encourages visitors to carry critical thinking and questioning through the rest of their galleries and into daily life.
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts has been committed to focusing on African and African-American artists in the museum since the 1990’s. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is one of the first museums to acquire Wiley’s portraits and have been doing so since their first acquisition of his painting, Willem van Heythuysen, in 2006. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic highlights the exemplary work of the museum in addressing issues of race and identity and is part of the museum’s larger strategic plan to represent more African and African-American artists.
A New Republic may hold utopian connotations, but Wiley’s wry humor and powerful imagery boldly bring inequalities in race, gender, and sexuality to the forefront. Wiley forces viewers to see the invisibility of African-American men and women in history through the same framework that was used for oppression. Rather than remaining passive bystanders of culture, Wiley’s works make the history of African-American repression evident while also portraying their power as producers of culture.
While Wiley’s work takes conversations to the next level, the arts have served as an outlet to peacefully make political statements throughout history. An art exhibit does more than give you something pretty to look at, it changes the way you see and interact in the world. From the active participant posing in the frame, to the young boy standing in the museum, Wiley generates agency in participants and viewers alike, changing the way African-Americans are seen in society.