Kehinde Wiley at the VMFA

Words: Emilie von Unwerth
Images: Courtesy of the VMFA

July 03 2016

One of the United States’ leading contemporary artists, Kehinde Wiley, has taken Richmond by storm the last couple of weeks. On display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since June 11, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic features over 50 paintings and sculptures that together raise important – and oft ignored – questions about race, identity and the politics of representation.

Wiley’s large-scale portraits of African American men and women “riff on specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted in those paintings with contemporary black subjects, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives.” The works extend over the prolific artists’ fourteen year career, and are among the most powerful pieces being made today.

 

“The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was one of the first comprehensive art museums to acquire his portraits, and we are thrilled to present a larger selection of his work to the public,” said the museum’s Director Alex Nyerges. “These paintings and sculptures challenge centuries of stereotypes, and we hope our visitors feel engaged and make the connection between Wiley’s works and those in our galleries.”

After graduating from Yale in 2001, Wiley moved to New York and began focusing on 18th and 19th century European paintings; he wanted to get at the crux of why the figure in the foreground really worked. “So much of that has to do with what the figure owns, possesses, feels providence upon,” said Wiley in a (wonderful) episode of Bad at Sports. “There is a sense in which I wanted to break away from [that].”

Wiley’s methods of model casting add another layer of meaning to his work. At the very beginning of his career, he would go out into the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem to recruit young men and women he saw there; a practice dubbed as “street casting.” He also invites many of his subjects to choose how they are posed based on their affinities for certain paintings presented to them.

Wiley’s subjects are depicted in modern streetwear – hoodies, baseball hats, tennis shoes, jeans – while sitting in a traditional Western pose against aristocratic and European backgrounds. The contrast serves to point out the exclusion of black Americans from these settings. The result is a piece of art that inspires both a great tension for the viewer as well as a great power.

 

Over the years, Wiley has taken his street casting out of New York and across the globe in a project called The World Stage. “I realized very early on that Black American culture, vis-à-vis hip hop, had been beamed throughout the rest of the world as probably one of our most dominant cultural exports, and changed the lives of young people all over the globe,” said Wiley in an (also amazing) Artnet interview. And what began as a study of different cultures ended as an enormous project that “comprises the entire history of art, the relationship between the individual and the nation, the relationship between contemporary and historical cultures, and it’s also a very personal and poetic journey of what it feels like to be a young black man navigating the world.”

Many of the works displayed at the VMFA are of women and men from across the globe, from all walks of life. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is as beautiful as it is commanding and important, and will be on display in Richmond through September 5th.