For its inaugural Hip Hop Honors program in 2005, VH1 commissioned Nigerian-American painter Kehinde Wiley to render the likenesses of Ice-T and LL Cool J, among other legends of rap history. Following the airing of the portraits, which, in Wiley's characteristic style, pictured the rappers as nineteenth century kings against florid rococo and baroque backgrounds, a predictable media swirl ensued. Urban music rags and art-industry weeklies ran interviews and spreads of the artist's work; Michael Jackson and other notables inquired about possible commissions.
But at an intimate talk held two weeks ago in the main gallery at the Studio Museum in Harlem, where the painter's exhibit "The World Stage: Africa, Lagos--Dakar" is currently on view, Wiley confided that he "only did it because [he] wanted to meet the guys in the picture." Otherwise, he's just trying to live down the hype. In his current exhibition, Wiley retains some of the vestiges of the polyglot aesthetic that speaks to the incongruity of his experience: a poor inner-city upbringing, which Wiley spent estranged from his Nigerian father, and graduate study at Yale School of Art (the fame machine of MFA programs). On the whole, however, he's refined this style to incite a nuanced and less timid conversation about representations of race and its position in art history.
Born in 1977 to a single mother, Wiley was raised among five siblings in South Central, LA. From the age of 11, he spent his weekends holed up in the city museums' public education programs studying Western European art history and learning to paint. At his talk, Wiley recounted this early introduction to the giants of Renaissance portraiture and the facets of their painting that continue to dominate his work. Throughout his undergraduate career in San Francisco and graduate study at Yale, Wiley was interested in appropriating and recontextualizing the styles of Titian, Caravaggio and the like; his interrogation of race from within this technique soon followed.
Toward the end of his study in New Haven, he recognized a snowballing fear of painting black subjects, and, in response, produced a collection of portraits of local black men. At his critique several of Wiley's classmates were taken aback and questioned his choice to paint so many black subjects. Historically, the ethnic body has been figured as an object that gains value only through its relation to its ever-present 'normal,' unraced counterpart. Placing raced bodies at the fore, imbuing them with dominance as stand-alones unframed by the presence of white bodies stirs up a very real, yet elusive uncertainty in the viewer. Wiley recalls this critique as the decisive moment in which he understood the brunt of his work would be in confronting and grappling with the anxieties he and his white classmates harbored over the representation of these bodies.
At the Studio Museum, where the artist held a residency in its third-floor studio from 2001-2002, Wiley found the subjects and emotional space to stage this confrontation and to birth his style. Coming from the car-logged City of Angels, Wiley confides that he had never encountered such a frenetic street culture. The painter speaks of Harlem in 2001 as a world of urgency, grit and illegal marketing that he had never before experienced, and which he fears is now long forgotten. During his afternoons Wiley would walk 125th St and pull black neighborhood men to sit for photographic portraits. Borrowing the style of his beloved European Old Masters, Wiley painted near copies of seminal 18th and 19th century figurative works, bumping the luminosity and saturation of his colors to a nearly photographic quality, and swapping out the old kings and emperors for the stylish young sitters.
By injecting these anonymous black bodies into the annals of high art history, Wiley sought to force contact between an artistic tradition that dealt almost exclusively with representing dignity, power, respect and heroism, and the contemporary imaging of black men that seemed to him endemically bereft of all the above. Unfortunately, many of Wiley's portraits miss the mark, reading as cartoonish and lighthearted to some, and, in their use of European posturing, as a disavowal of any adequate representation of nobility to be found in black art history to others. They don't quite achieve a representation of blackness that can exist outside of oblique references to the familiar, palatable white body.
In his current exhibition Wiley departs from his standard templates and locales. From this new vantage, he foregrounds the project of juxtaposition and exploration of his own disquietudes much more provocatively. The ten paintings in this iteration of "The World Stage" (Wiley plans to continue the project of painting local black men in various global cities) feature black men plucked from the streets and beaches of Lagos and Dakar donning mostly Western sportswear and accessories--soccer jerseys and rubber Livestrong bracelets. Only a few wear West African beaded necklaces and pendants. Rather than placing his sitters in Renaissance scenes, Wiley has these men mimic the poses of cement statues that were erected in the region just after the 1960's rash of independence movements. These works invoke a more tenable dialogue between the painter's European technique and the West African forms and objects that occupy them. At the Studio Museum talk, Wiley told an audience member that even the frames in which the works are displayed are a nod to pre-colonial West African sculpture. They are made of dark, polished wood and nothing like the supercharged, gilded frames he's used in the past.
But the most interesting element of the works is located in their backgrounds--painted representations of the brightly-colored Dutch wax cloths that we now associate with West African textiles. In most of the portraits, Wiley has elements of the motifs that adorn these cloths rise into the foreground, creating an interplay between sitter and backdrop. Toward the end of his talk, Wiley addressed these backgrounds and revealed that they were the element that he'd been most reluctant to include. He worried that the dominance of such pregnant, tropical spaces would essentialize his sitters. These textiles might fix his subjects' blackness with the decorative--traditionally misread as excessive and unserious.
On the contrary Wiley's backgrounds and the ambiguities that their placement in the work evoke--a fabric of Western Europe that now reads as African, a decorative choice that can be read as drawing on either West African aesthetics or French rococo, a backdrop that may seem to emulate those used in the altogether divergent medium of studio photography--are the exhibit's greatest success. The paintings of "The World Stage" make a nuanced distinction between the different traditions at work. Whereas the exaggerated disparity between the subject and style of Wiley's older work confronted the viewer, these portraits ask us to consider how wide the gulf between these cultures and their artistic output really is.
STEPHANIE POTTINGER B'09 can do for you what Martin did for the people.