Seattle

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at Seattle Art Museum

A New Republic at Seattle Art Museum is Kehinde Wiley’s second solo exhibition organized by the Brooklyn Museum. In his brief fifteen-year career, Wiley has quickly become an established cultural trope. His works have adorned the set of Empire and served as icons of the FIFA World Cup. His portraits of Black men and women are at once celebrated as a vision of Black empowerment and criticized as glossy and gratuitous stereotypes of Blackness and of Black masculinity in particular. Even so, Wiley has a masterful hand, reinforced by a passion for research and a strategic understanding of the culture machine. He is a painter and a performer, an entrepreneur and an orator, with the ability to leverage visual and verbal codes to build an enormously successful creative enterprise.

Kehinde Wiley. King and the High Priest, 2014; 22k gold leaf and oil on wood panel; 40 x 24 x 2 inches. © Kehinde Wiley; Photo: Max Yawney.

Kehinde Wiley. King and the High Priest, 2014; 22k gold leaf and oil on wood panel; 40 x 24 x 2 in. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney.

The exhibition opens with a series of Wiley’s equestrian portraits—paintings that embody the lurid drama of his entire oeuvre. Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps (2005) is an icon of Wiley’s particular brand of pastiche in service of parody and critique. In Napoleon, a model—“street-cast” from Harlem or Bed-Stuy—is portrayed in his everyday attire and inserted into an 1801 historic tableau by Jacques-Louis David. Wiley’s figure becomes Napoleon, thereby collapsing centuries of old art-world hierarchies between high and low, insider and outsider, White and Black. In place of the rocky landscape background in David’s piece (a site of conquest, no doubt), Wiley introduces a flattened French brocade pattern, which is punctuated by golden blooms of swimming sperm. Undeniably a fantastic work of propaganda, Napoleon is a vision of epic idealism much like the evoked original.

Kehinde Wiley. Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005; oil and enamel on canvas; 108 x 108 inches. © Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley. Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005; oil and enamel on canvas; 108 x 108 in. © Kehinde Wiley.

This idea of building a heritage and tradition for Blackness remains the crux of Wiley’s practice today. He came of age in the 1990s, a decade defined in the art world by ruminations on postcolonial theory and institutional critique. In 1994, Thelma Golden, now director of the Studio Museum of Harlem, curated Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Contemporary American Art, an exhibition that originated at the Whitney Museum and traveled to the Hammer in Wiley’s hometown of Los Angeles the following year. Black Male brought together works of art that examined the Black male as a body and political icon, challenging and deconstructing stereotypical representations dominating the whole of sociocultural life. Most importantly, it created a space for the Black voice and identity within an exclusive institutional realm.

In the past decade, identity politics have fallen out of fashion in the art world, but the social and political realities have not gone away. In fact, they have reinvigorated the collective consciousness with renewed urgency. Wiley’s work, while seemingly a collection of artful one-liners that are visually alluring yet conceptually predictable, needs to be examined beyond its shiny surface. He is not another blue-chip artist stagnating within his brand of success. Rather, he continues to push his practice forward, examining culture—its formations, permutations, and material manifestations—as a global project.

Kehinde Wiley. Two Heroic Sisters of the Grassland, 2011; oil on canvas; 96 x 84 inches. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney.

Kehinde Wiley. Two Heroic Sisters of the Grassland, 2011; oil on canvas; 96 x 84 in. © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Max Yawney.

The World Stage (2006–ongoing) examines how culture is formed and reformed by the systems of empire and global capitalism. The portraits in each series employ an amalgamation of visual codes to unpack the bastard lineages of colonialization as they manifest in frictional objects and signals. In Haiti, French fleur-de-lys patterns merge with motifs of indigenous plants, and Napoleon’s daughters are recast by everyday citizens; in China, a Communist propaganda poster is framed by Islamic indigo batik; in Israel, Ethiopian mythological characters are integrated into traditional Jewish woodcut; and in Nigeria, an ancient wooden sculpture from Mali is superimposed with a Dutch wax-print textile motif. Which of these recognizable signs are actual cultural symbols, and which are empty patterns that Western eyes identify as representations of ethnicity? How are visual codes imposed and adopted, becoming flags of cultural identity? Just as there is a fine line between visibility and exploitation in Wiley’s work, there is murky tether between cultural appropriation and imposition that is expressed as well.

Questions around the commodification of cultural identities are brought to the fore with Wiley’s aptly named series Economies of Grace (2012). These paintings feature Black American women adorned in Givenchy gowns in poses taken from historic European portraiture. In this series, fashion and femininity are expressed as equal economies; the models are produced by the garments that adorn them.

Kehinde Wiley. Mrs. Waldorf Astor, 2012; oil on linen; 72 x 60 inches. © Kehinde Wiley.

Kehinde Wiley. Mrs. Waldorf Astor, 2012; oil on linen; 72 x 60 in. © Kehinde Wiley.

Wiley has an uncanny ability to find the sameness within difference that, ultimately, comes back to the universal drive to commoditize culture. His work proves the relationship between culture, identity, and economy is eternal, transcending time, geography, culture, and gender. Are Wiley’s overt art-historical references merely an indicator of a much larger endeavor to critique the system of global capitalism from within? Referred to as the Black Andy Warhol, Wiley has organized his art practice like a fashion house, establishing factories in New York, Beijing, and Berlin that continue to churn out the patterned backgrounds and ornate frames so crucial to his work. A New Republic is indeed an empire of sorts—the Republic of Kehinde Wiley, whose prolific output continues to be on the ascent.

Share