Progression of Art
Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps
This equestrian portrait appropriates Jacques-Louis David's famous Bonaparte Crossing the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, 20 May 1800 (1800). In Wiley's version, a young contemporary African-American male rider wears army fatigues, a white bandanna, tan boots, red sweatbands on his wrists, and a flowing golden cloak around his shoulders. The composition is the same as David's masterpiece, with the figure gesturing upward with his tattooed right arm while sitting confidently atop a rearing white horse, upon a rocky landscape. As in the original, the names of military leaders who have led their armies over the alps ("BONAPARTE", "HANNIBAL", and "KAROLUS MAGNUS") are carved into the rocks at the bottom left corner, however in Wiley's version, an extra name, "WILLIAMS" (the name of Wiley's sitter) is included above the other two. Wiley also signed and dated the work in the same place as David, on the horse's breastplate. The background of the upper three-quarters of the painting is a decorative red and gold Baroque brocade pattern. Throughout the background, small white sperm can be seen swimming against the deep red pattern. The painting is mounted in an ornate gold frame.
Wiley ironically uses fashionable camouflage-patterned clothes to reference the military provenance of the original David painting, itself a piece of propaganda pieced together from accounts and images - Napoleon neither led his troops, nor rode a white horse, but rather followed behind them on a mule. Positioning a young black man atop this white steed assigns power to black male subjects, who are particularly disenfranchised and victimised in contemporary America. The use of camouflage clothing - which is intended purely as decorative fashion, not to hide its wearer - and excessive pageantry and overly dramatic pose of Wiley's painting also highlights the artificiality, pompousness, and "over-the-top pageantry" of many of the Western world's most famous images. Moreover, Wiley explains, "I use French Rococo influences, with its garishness and vulgarity, to complement the flashy attire and display of 'material consumption' evident in hip-hop culture." Indeed, fashion is a crucial component of Wiley's paintings. He states that "I'm looking at fashion as culture, fashion as serious business. Where people will often times dress themselves as a form of armor. Fashion is armor in so much as it says something about who we are in the world. It also protects us a bit. My work tries to concentrate on fashion as a conceptual color. It's yet another color in my palette to tell a story."
The inclusion of sperm in the background is Wiley's way of referencing masculinity, highlighting black masculinity, and also poking fun at the excessive, over the top heroic heterosexual masculinity evoked by historical equestrian portraiture. Wiley notes, "Equestrian portraiture became such a phenomenon because it represented man's domination over nature, and by extension over women". This type of equestrian portraiture was about men wishing to be portrayed as sexual and military heroes, conquering the beast between their legs, as Gods, something Wiley sees as "beautiful and strangely psychologically vulnerable", but also "complete bullshit" in its affirmation of white, heterosexual, male dominance.
In order to give his portrait the same sense of scale as its historical counterpart, Wiley used Photoshop to make the horse appear smaller and the human figure appear larger. He refers to the resulting effect as "Hyper-heroic". The sheer scale of the canvas, comparable to Old Masters paintings, is intended to "contend with you in physical space", Wiley says. He understands the museum as a type of stage, and aims to use his works to both embrace/emulate, yet also criticize museum culture. He says "My job as an artist is simply to ask who deserves to be on the great museum walls."
Oil on canvas - Brooklyn Museum, New York, New York
Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro
This portrait is of a young black boy with bleach-blond hair, wearing a black baseball cap backwards, and a red sleeveless tank top. The boy is depicted from the chest up, and gazes sideways at the viewer sceptically or warily. The yellow background is composed of brightly colored blue and red flowers with green foliage. A few of the flowers also appear in the foreground, floating in front of the subject's chest. The work is mounted in a black floral frame.
This portrait is typical of Wiley's work, featuring a young black male subject depicted against an ornate background. However, this work also acts as an example of how Wiley responds "site-specifically" to different geographical locations. This portrait was completed in Brazil, and instead of his typical Rococo or Baroque backdrops, Wiley drew inspiration from the brightly patterned tablecloths found in the favelas, or shanty towns, inhabited by poorer working people in Brazil. He brings a similar site-specificity to portraits done in other parts of the world. For instance, in West Africa, he was inspired by the African patterns found in the marketplaces, and sampled body positions from West African sculpture. Likewise, in Israel, he created his backgrounds based on Israeli paper cut outs. In this way, viewers of Wiley's portraits completed outside of the Unites States are provided with instantly recognizable visual clues (regional and cultural specific imagery and patterns) to help them locate the work and the subject's point of origin.
Randerson Romualdo Cordeiro is himself a favela dweller, whom Wiley met on the streets of Brazil. As in many countries and cities, people living geographically and conceptually on the outskirts of the town are thought to be unimportant and unsavory. Young black and brown men on the margins are further often considered dangerous, lazy, and violent - all racist stereotypes fostered by contemporary politics, image-making and popular culture. This painting completely turns these ideas and images around.
This portrait is unique in the way it paints its subject - a young boy encountered on the street, on the outskirts - in the same manner that famous, important people (almost always white men) have historically been portrayed. The flowers behind and in front of this boy also speak to the vulnerability, youth, and beauty of favela cultures and young black and brown boys, who are often treated as if they are always already adult, hard, and dangerous.
Oil on canvas - Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington
Femme Piquée par un Serpent
In this enormous painting, a young black man wears sneakers, blue jeans which are provocatively pulled down slightly to reveal the white underwear underneath, an orange t-shirt, lime green hooded sweatshirt, and an orange baseball cap tilted to the side. The subject is depicted reclining on a wooden bed covered in a white sheet. The man gazes over his shoulder sensuously at the viewer; a 'come hither' stare. The background is deep blue with pale pinkish-beige flowers, some of which emerge into the foreground, falling over the man and bed.
The historical inspiration for this painting was Auguste Clésinger's 1847 sculpture of the same name, which depicted a woman in the process of dying from a venomous snakebite. At the time, the sculpture was controversial, as many saw the woman's writhing and contorting as more erotic and sensual than indicative of impending death. By adopting the reclining pose, this and similar works by Wiley in the Down series - which depicted an unsettling series of prone bodies - imbue the subjects with a greater sense of sensuality and vulnerability than his usual oeuvre.
David J. Getsy, Professor of Art History at the Art Institute of Chicago, explains the historical significance of the reclining pose, writing, "In this tradition, ascendance is hierarchical, and the uprightness of the human body signals the intellectual and moral alertness of the figure. Asleep, wounded, dead, or objectified, the horizontal body is first and foremost one whose mortality and carnality have been underscored by its lack of uprightness. The recumbent body, in this way, came to signify passivity, vulnerability, and availability." Wiley explains his choice of pose, stating, "Historically, we're used to female figures in repose. I think we're almost trained to read the reclining figure in a painting within an erotic state. There's a type of powerlessness with regard to being down off of your feet, and in that sense, that power exchange can be codified as an erotic moment." Art critic Chloe Wyma writes that with this painting, "Wiley simultaneously queers and racializes the sublimated perversity of 19th-century academic statuary, replacing the pallid marble female nude with a reclining black man in low-slung jeans and a green hoodie. Here, the black male body, still an object of anxiety and presumed criminality in American culture, lies on a divan, gazing at the viewer like a coy odalisque."
This painting breaks many of the rules of the nude figure study, traditionally small, unimposing studies of naked or near-naked smooth-skinned white women painted by men for other men to gaze down upon. At the same time, Wiley purposely uses other recognizable historical formal traditions such as the drapery on the bed, reclining figure and evocative, yet passive over the shoulder gaze of the feminine lover to refigure the young black man as queer figure of vulnerability, softness, and sexual desire.
Of the soft flowers floating through the picture plane, Wiley says that he wants there to be a competition in his work between foreground and background, as historically the male subject is portrayed as the dominant presence in the foreground, while everything else (such as land and cattle) is shown to be his property, appearing behind him in the background.
Oil on canvas
Judith Beheading Holofernes
In this painting, a black female with a large elaborate "up-do" hairstyle and a long blue gown is shown holding a knife in her right hand, and grasping the decapitated head of a white woman by the hair. The background is comprised of orange and blue flowers and green foliage against a solid black backdrop.
This painting was part of Wiley's exhibition An Economy of Grace, his first-ever series dedicated to female subjects. The models for the paintings were cast on the streets of New York City. Wiley worked with designer Riccardo Tisci from Givenchy to create gowns specifically for each woman in the series. He says that the impossibly large hairdos were meant to reference the language of Western European paintings, (such as over-the-top powdered wigs), but also to reference the language of the American streets, (such as hair weaves).
In this, and other paintings in the series, Wiley's subjects confront the viewer with an active, confident stare, thereby subverting the traditional convention of the (white) male gaze. This serves as an example of the "oppositional gaze", outlined by feminist scholar bell hooks in her 1992 book Black Looks: Race and Representation. Hooks put forward this concept as a way that racial minorities can reclaim power and assert resistance toward the racialized, male gaze typical of narrative cinema and other forms of visual media. North Carolina Museum of Art curator Jen Dasal states, "Wiley's Judith is the star of the story, the embodiment of fierceness. She stands triumphant, and her direct, challenging gaze doesn't allow us to forget it - lest we become her next victim."
There are numerous historical references for this painting, with several artists (including Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi) having depicted the subject matter of Judith beheading Holofernes. This story from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith tells the tale of a woman who seduces and then beheads a male general who intends to destroy her home city of Bethulia. Historic paintings of the story are often read as a feminist victory - a woman using her beauty (which is meant to indicate her passivity) to murder the man who tries to destroy her people. However, this reading is tellingly devoid of racial consideration. Wiley's painting reflects on bell hooks' critique of Laura Mulvey's earlier work on the male gaze, in which (white) women are represented for the pleasure of (white) men - thus, black folk, and especially black women, are denied both agency (as the person looking) and the capacity to be sexually desirable (as the person being looked at). The painting also draws attention to the tendency in feminism to focus on white women, and forget the racial disparities in terms of power and beauty standards.
This repositioning of a black woman as murderer of a white woman has received a great deal of criticism and concern that it encourages violence against white women, and portrays black women as perpetrators of violence. However, others, including the artist, consider it as threatening predominately as it serves as a symbolic threat to white supremacy.
Oil on canvas - North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina
Portrait of Barack Obama
In October 2017, Wiley was selected by former U.S. president Barack Obama to paint his official portrait to appear in Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery America's Presidents exhibition. The painting was unveiled on February 12, 2018. It depicts Obama sitting in a wooden chair, which appears to float among bright green foliage, interspersed with chrysanthemums, jasmine, and African blue lilies. In the portrait, Obama wears a dark blue suit and a white collared shirt with the top two buttons undone, and no tie. His arms are crossed, with his elbows resting on his knees. His wedding ring is visible on his left ring finger. He looks directly out at the viewer.
Wiley and Amy Sherald, who painted former First Lady Michelle Obama, are the first black artists to paint official portraits of the President or First Lady for the National Portrait Gallery. Throughout his presidency, Barack and wife Michelle made a point of highlighting and supporting the work of modern and contemporary black artists, for instance by filling the White House walls with artworks by Glenn Ligon, Alma Thomas, and William H. Johnson. When it came time to select the artist to complete their portraits, the Obamas chose among twenty artists whose portfolios were submitted for consideration. Barack Obama says of Wiley's work, "What I was always struck by when I saw his portraits was the degree to which they challenged our ideas of power and privilege." However, Obama asked Wiley to "ease up" on the over-the-top regal, god-like quality that most of his works possess. He says "I had to explain that I've got enough political problems without you making me look like Napoleon. We've got to bring it down just a touch. And that's what he did." Obama also says, "I tried to negotiate less grey hair, and Kehinde's artistic integrity would not allow him to do what I asked. I tried to negotiate smaller ears, struck out on that as well."
Throughout the process of preparing for the portrait's creation (which involved taking thousands of photographs), Wiley and Obama came to discover that they had certain significant things in common. Obama says, "Both of us had American mothers who raised us with extraordinary love and support. Both of us had African fathers who had been absent from our lives, and in some ways our journeys involved searching for them, and what that meant."
The foliage in the background that Wiley selected for Obama's portrait was his way of "charting [Obama's] path on Earth." Each of the flowers has an important signification, with the chrysanthemum being the official flower of Chicago (where the Obamas lived for several years), jasmine representing Hawaii (where Obama was born and raised), and African blue lilies (symbolising the President's heritage).
This portrait is extremely important in that it does something very different to traditional portraits of Presidents and other important people (usually men), it complicates the relations of power between the sitter, the artist, and the viewer. The surreal, kitsch flowers enveloping Obama's chair give the painting and the President a life that is notoriously absent from official paintings of dignitaries.
Oil on canvas - National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D. C.
Portrait of Mickalene Thomas, the Coyote
In this portrait of Contemporary African-American artist Mickalene Thomas, the subject is depicted in grey pants and a white tank top, with a feathered headdress. She stands heroically, with her head held high looking down toward the viewer. One hand is poised on her hip, while the other is crossed in front of her chest. Unlike the decorative patterns used by Wiley in most of his backgrounds, the subject here is depicted in a sublime outdoor setting, with mountains, lakes, and a dramatic dark blue and green evening sky behind her, as well two coyotes standing on either side of her, and green foliage in the foreground along the bottom edge and sides of the painting.
This painting is part of Wiley's Trickster series wherein he painted portraits of eleven prominent black contemporary artists (including Nick Cave, Rashid Johnson and Sanford Biggers, Yinka Shonibare, and Kerry James Marshall). In the mythology of various cultures, the trickster is an archetypal mischievous, cunning character who frequently challenges or breaks rules and norms. The trickster in Akan African folklore is Anansi the spider. In France, the trickster is Reynard the fox. In the art world, artists often take on the qualities of tricksters, pushing the limits of what is considered appropriate or acceptable. Wiley says "Artists are those people who sit at the intersection between the known and unknown, the rational and irrational, coming to terms with some of the confusing histories we as artists deal with. The trickster position can serve quite well especially in times like this." He also notes that, like the black artist attempting to navigate the predominantly white art world, "The trickster is an expert at code switching, at passing and posing." He continues, "In African-American folklore, the trickster stands in direct relation to secrecy. How do you keep your home and humanity safe from the dominant culture? How do you talk about things and keep them away from the master? These were things talked about in slavery that morphed into the blues, then jazz, then hip-hop. It informs the way young people fashion their identities."
Mickalene Thomas is known for her portraits of glamorous black women and Wiley and Thomas have been friends ever since they attended Yale together for their MFA degrees. In portraying Thomas as the coyote, Wiley draws on the animal's symbolism of both trickster and teacher, who gets their message across (as in Thomas' powerful, dazzling women) in a roundabout, though potent way.
This series is Wiley's way of honoring artists of color whom he regards as heroes and friends. He says "These are people I surround myself with in New York, who come to my studio, who share my ideas. The people I looked up to as a student, as a budding artist many years ago." He also notes that the series was partly a way to reflect on his own role and identity within the broader contemporary art world, adding, "It's about analysing my position as an artist within a broader community. About an artist's relationship to history and time. It's a portrait of a group of people coming to terms with what it means to be an artist in the 21st century dealing with blackness, with individuality."
For this series, Wiley drew influence from Goya's Black Paintings (1819-1823), a series of fourteen powerfully haunting murals, which employ a similarly dark palette. The interplay of light and dark in this series served as a metaphor for Wiley regarding the challenges of accepting and challenging one's racial identity. He says, "I'm interested in blackness as a space of the irrational. I love the idea of starting with darkness but ending up with a show that is decidedly about light. There is a very self-conscious concentration on the presence and absence of light ― tying into these notions of good and evil, known and unknown. There is a delicate balance that comes out of such a simple set of metaphors." He adds, "It's about being able to play inside of it and outside of the race narrative at once. It's difficult to get right." Duality, mixed race, or what Wiley commonly refers to as "twinning", has been a central aspect to his work since the beginning of his career. Not only does twinning serve to create strong metaphors in his paintings, it is also a way for him to insert his own biography into his oeuvre, as he himself is a twin.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Ship of Fools
In this painting, four young black men are shown on a dilapidated rowboat, in the midst of a wild, choppy sea. The dark black and orange sky indicates that a storm is on its way. In the centre of the boat stands a single tree with green leaves. One of the men stands shirtless, in blue jeans, with one hand upon his hip and the other holding up an oar. Two of the men are seated on either side of him, apparently talking and either yelling or laughing. The fourth man stands at the back the boat, with his back toward the viewer, looking out at the rough water.
This painting is part of Wiley's In Search of the Miraculous series of nine paintings inspired by the seascapes of J.M.W. Turner, Winslow Homer, and Hieronymus Bosch. The exhibition also included Wiley's first three-channel artist film (which has a voiceover quoting philosopher Michel Foucault's Madness and Civilisation, and African-Caribbean philosopher Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, about "otherness").
Through the interplay of art historical tradition and black subjects dressed in contemporary clothing, Wiley explores the themes of migration and isolation in today's America. He says that the show is "definitely a departure from what I've done in the past. I'm looking at the history of maritime painting, so water is one of the key figures in the work. Depicting the ocean has always, in the west, been about voyage, about conquest, but this show is also about migration, madness and displacement. In a sense, it's about America and where she is right now." He recognizes water as a powerful symbol, both for himself and for America's racial minorities more broadly. He explains, "I have a studio in West Africa, my father is from West Africa, my body is from West Africa. Bodies travelling through water is very important in this show, be it black bodies travelling across the Atlantic to become the founders of my country, building the economy, building the conversations that led to our revolutions and our civil wars and our hip-hop and our blues - sure, that's in there. As is the conversation surrounding Europe and Brexit and how we choose to define ourselves." In this painting, the tree that travels with the four men can be understood as a symbol of life and heritage, representing the way that displaced peoples are forced to carry their culture with them to new lands.
Wiley asks us to reconsider heroic paintings of the sea as sites for white explorers, heroes, and colonizers, and to refigure the ocean as a site of trauma, both historically, as in the Atlantic slave trade, and in the contemporary immigration crisis causing countless horrific deaths of black and brown refugees at sea.
Oil on canvas - National Maritime Museum (Royal Museums Greenwich), London, England