A stroll in any major art museum in the world will have visitors passing by grand portraits of masters and prominent figures of the past, most likely gathered around dining tables, at sea or in majestic poses. The faces depicted in these classic portraits are predominantly of white men and women, whose elevated status in society has been frozen in time and is visible through their powerful and vulnerable poses painted on centuries-old canvases.
Until now, that is.
Kehinde Wiley’s exhibit, “A New Republic,” has landed at the Seattle Art Museum (sam), and the 60 paintings and sculptures displayed are just a fraction of the breathtaking work he has done to break the mold and change the conversation about representation in the art world: The subjects of his work are exclusively people of color.
Wiley, who is originally from Los Angeles, reworks traditional portraiture by shifting the subject matter from powerful people in old society to everyday men and women of color today. Through this, his brush strokes become a political act. In interviews, Wiley says he rarely saw people that looked like him in museums and galleries, which inspired him to begin filling the void.
“I was trained to paint the body by copying the Old Master paintings, so in some weird way this is a return to how I earned my chops — spending a lot of time at museums and staring at white flesh,” he recounts on his website.
The majority of his work revolves around the Black man, understandably so, as Wiley is one himself. He finds subjects by street-casting, asking people to pose for a camera crew in the same style as a historical painting of their choosing (many works are titled after the name of the inspired original). He compensates the models for their time and works with them on the presentation. Eventually he paints the images on massive canvases, creating larger-than-life viewing experiences.
Each aspect of the paintings requires a close critique of clothing choices, postures, facial expressions and more. The model is wearing personal clothing and accessories in the portraits, and Wiley does not avoid painting the brand names of clothing, accessories and sneakers.
These nuances allow for the viewer to examine themes of class and power. By appropriating techniques and methods of master artists that historically left out people of color, Wiley’s work is able to help tackle what it means to exist in a black or brown body in a postcolonial world. It gives viewers the opportunity to wrestle with identity, perceptions and traditional Eurocentric beauty values.
The backgrounds of his work are another key tool in visually breaking down Western stereotypes of people of color. It is not often one associates beautiful flowers and vibrant pinks with Black men. While this lends itself well to visually pleasing pieces, it also is a tool that allows viewers to deconstruct their own biases and perceptions of where and how we see Black men in media.
His focus originally started with depictions of just men in New York, but now he includes women. In “An Economy of Grace,” one series of paintings in the exhibit, Wiley expands the dialogue. He describes it on his website as “an investigation of the presence of women in painting, but in a broader sense, it is an investigation of the negotiation of power in image-making.” Wiley worked alongside the luxury fashion brand Givenchy to create clothing for his subjects based on 18th and 19th century portraits, which contributes to themes of wealth and class, and asks users to examine the connection between fashion and identity.
The exhibit also includes Wiley’s “World Stage” series of paintings of models from around the world, including India and Brazil. Wiley went through the same process of casting models he found on the streets, though some of the depicted models are well known, such as Ethiopian-Israeli rapper Kalkidan Mashasha.
These particular pieces examine the politics of colonialism that are linked across various cultures. The background in these images usually incorporates symbolism pertinent to the model’s host country’s history.
Not all his works in the exhibit are paintings. “A New Republic” includes a reinterpretation of other historical art mediums, such as stained glass and iconic bust sculptures. It is again in these appropriations that details are revealing: One bust has an afro pick, while another balances a sneaker on his head. Wiley’s remixing of two cultures rooted in very different historical contexts is an ode, intentional or not, to hip hop culture by his repurposing of the past.
Opening day of the exhibit brought a record-breaking 2,800 people to sam, according to The Seattle Times. These numbers indicate there is a desire to bear witness to more exhibits that feature communities of color.
In experiencing Wiley’s work, there is a shared sense of excitement for future generations who will have these depictions to examine in their art history curriculum. It is a powerful feeling, the opposite of what Wiley felt as an artist before his exploration. He discussed this feeling of vulnerability of his work in a candid 2015 interview with NPR:
“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.”
“A New Republic” will be at the sam until May 8. Community photo sessions, performances and panel discussions are a part of a series of programs related to the exhibit that will take place during its duration. To learn more, visit seattleartmuseum.org.