Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic Amidst Dated Thought by Taylor Renee
“I went to the #BrooklynMuseum
and what did I see? Beautiful Black men
looking at me.
Painted by #KehindeWiley
They were gilded and grand.
In an ancient artistic land.
There were women too,
Of equal size and style,
And a video of men
Showing how they could smile,
I gasped, I sighed
And I laughed out loud
So I hope you go see it,
It’ll make your proud” - @lupitanyongo Instagram
Throughout his fifteen year career, Kehinde Wiley has created portraits of alluring African American men (and now women) in renaissance poses from ancient master paintings, usually depicted as societal leaders – images that are more enlightening than ever amidst the visibility of countless unjustified killings of Black men in America caught on tape. I approached the Kehinde retrospective with this in mind. Although very familiar, I had an urge to witness some Black folk portrayed as the Kings and Queens that they are.
With seamless curatorial execution, the Kehinde Wiley retrospective was an illuminating experience. As I entered the fifth floor Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery, I was first greeted with several stained glass full body portraits in a round. All six figures are situated several feet above the viewer, depicting figures that contained yellow circles around the heads, which is representative of a halo in most sacred visual images.
Kehinde’s retrospective is diverse, ranging from spiritually enlightened portraits to works containing coy subjects that subtly present erroneous narratives. Kehinde Wiley’s “Down” series is also featured in the retrospective. Though some of his most controversial works, "Down" is said to be inspired by traditional paintings and sculptures of fallen soldiers and societal leaders, representing the inevitability of failure, associated with most heroic acts that is not often shared. The series title “'Down' becomes a play on words, as it can mean several things: the orientation of the person lying down; the emotion of being down-and-out; or the sexual reference of a person who is on the 'down low,'" says curator Eugenie Tsai. The series features figures lying down or reclining in front of Kehinde’s notable baroque and rococo backgrounds. The series presents mostly effeminate male figures revealing bronze toned flesh and baggy jeans that drape off of protruding buttocks. There is no doubt that Kehinde's paintings surpass the level of merely suggesting homoerotic tones in this particular series and even in some of his other works.
Presumptuous art critic Jessica Dawson weighed in on the sexual undertones in Wiley’s work, along with the impact Wiley's paintings have on African Americans. She discredits its empowerment and prosecutes Wiley as a predator because of the sexual subtleties in his work - an ambitious act being that Dawson does not inherit the general plights of being Black in America to make such a claim. Dawson stated in a recent Village Voice critique of Kehinde Wiley’s work:
"Where once was a powerful white man, Wiley inserts a firm piece of African-American flesh. Where white power aggrandized itself in official state portraiture, now young blacks from the ghetto, the ones newspaper headlines insist are without future and en route to incarceration, straddle stallions. What does it mean to put a young black man on a horse and call him Napoleon? If it isn't dangling a fantasy and false hope, then at least it implies that young urban blacks are in desperate need of uplift. You call that empowerment?"
Despite the crude and incredulous comments made by Dawson, I argue that Kehinde’s works are necessary in the larger landscape of visual politics, disrupting ill-informed perceptions of Black Americans and subsequently their sexuality. I am not flustered much by Jessica Dawson’s comments made earlier this month because her track record supports the fact that she may have had a personal disdain for Kehinde's lifestyle, ethnic background and work for some time . However, It is important to distinguish bigotry from fact. Fact is, while some of Kehinde’s work undoubtedly has homoerotic and general sexual undertones. His paintings also yield a sense of empowerment through pose, baroque and rococo background patterns, dress, and sexuality. These factors do not make him a predator, but an artist bold enough to explore untapped terrain.
Dawson’s remarks deeming Kehinde as a sexual predator are rooted in fear, and derive from a longstanding history of the myth of the predatory Black man that has been perpetuated for centuries by white Americans. Between the Civil War and World War II, thousands of Black men, women and children were lynched in America, primarily in the south. Lynchings in America implicitly shaped the political, economic and social conditions of African Americans. One of the most common justified reasons for lynching Black men was the fear of violent or sexual predatory acts they may or may have not committed.
In a recent report conducted by The Equal Justice Initiative, Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror, it notes,
“nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South were based on charges of sexual assault. The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, could arouse a lynch mob. The definition of black-on-white “rape” in the South required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws, and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African American man.”
Many African Americans witnessed and experienced the fatal perils associated with the sexual predatory label, which is so often charged by white fear of theoretical sexual offenses. Thus when a contemporary white art critic labels a successful Black man as a sexual predator, the paradox of white fear rears its ugly head. History proves that white fear has done nothing but generate public crucifixions of innocent black bodies.
Certain images, like Kehinde's creations, aid in diffusing white fear. We are constantly bombarded with negative images of Black men and women that perpetuate stereotypes of violent and hyper-sexualized African American caricatures. Kehinde’s works completely dissolve that myth, empowering African Americans, yet encouraging them to explore unorthodox narratives of sexuality, which is an extremely taboo subject among the Black American community. Entertainment and art have the power to encourage dialogue and ultimately influence the portrayal of Blacks in America authentically. If you are a Black person in America, exhausted by the constant production of stereotypical black images placed in the mainstream, go see the Kehinde Wiley Retrospective before it closes on May 24, 2015.
Taylor Renee is co-editor of ARTS.BLACK