“Painting is about the world we live in. Black people live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.”—Kehinde Wiley
Last weekend I visited the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where the exhibition “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” is showing through September 5, a fifteen-year survey of Wiley’s art organized by the Brooklyn Museum. An academically trained artist, Wiley paints black and brown bodies in proud poses against ornate decorative backgrounds on monumental canvases, riffing on art-historical masterpieces from the Renaissance and Baroque eras. He “street casts” his models: walks the streets of inner-city neighborhoods, inviting black males, ages eighteen to thirty-five, to sit for portraits. In this collaborative process, the model chooses a reproduction of a painting from a book and reenacts, in his streetwear, the pose of the painting’s figure.
In the exhibition catalog, Connie H. Choi, a research associate at the Brooklyn Museum, writes,
In inserting the urban black male figure into the art-historical canon, the artist brings the canon up to date and at the same time questions its centuries-long exclusion of such figures. His manner of portraying African American men is Wiley’s way of affirming their presence in a society that has long discounted or undervalued them. (24)
Cultural critic Touré describes Wiley’s oeuvre as an “attempt to rehabilitate black images”—in the media (especially before the presidency of Barack Obama), often simplistically skewed toward hip-hop music videos and newsreels of urban gang violence—“by putting them in the context of nobility, of import, of beauty” (52).
Kings, nobles, and wealthy merchants are among the subjects depicted in Wiley’s source material. But biblical and extrabiblical saints, and Christ himself, are also present. For centuries religious imagery had a commanding presence in churches, palaces, homes, and government buildings, exercising sway over the imagination and steering popular devotion. By translating European devotional paintings—fashioned in the image of the white ruling class—into a contemporary idiom that places black bodies up front and center, Wiley rectifies the lack of representation of racial minorities in and as the body of Christ.
His Down series, which seeks to capture the majesty and severity of fallen warriors and entombed saints, features three paintings of the dead Christ. Hans Holbein’s life-size predella panel on the subject was the starting point; showing Jesus’s putrefying corpse, it is regarded as one of the all-time most grotesque paintings of Jesus. In The Idiot, Dostoyevsky’s Prince Mishkin says that viewed in isolation from the Resurrection, the painting has the power to make one lose one’s Christian faith.
In Wiley’s reconceptualization, Jesus’s body is fit, his skin radiant. Gone are the blue face, puncture wounds, and emaciation of the prototype. Art critics have recognized in this and many more of Wiley’s paintings a homoeroticism, reading them in light of Wiley’s sexuality. That’s their prerogative, but in the direct gaze and parted lips of Wiley’s dead Christ I hear not “Come hither” but “Look, white America, at what you have done, at what you are doing.”
The Down series predates the Black Lives Matter movement but speaks powerfully into that context. It challenges the public—especially the white public—to see the rampant shooting deaths of unarmed black men by police and to name it what it is: an injustice, a tragedy.
For all their visual engagement with and meditation on the Passion, Christians at large have proven deficient in their willingness to mourn the suffering and death of black brothers and sisters. Maybe, just maybe, gazing on a dead black Christ could produce more empathy in us when we see news photos of black people whose lives have been taken from them. Maybe these paintings can lead us into lament. In Wiley’s Lamentation, for example, we’re invited to poke our heads into the void left by the excision of Mary and John and to wail and moan. (For more on racial tensions in America from a Christian perspective, I commend to you the lecture “The Heart Cry of #BlackLivesMatter” by Jemar Tisby, cofounder of the Reformed African American Network.)
In these three paintings Wiley continues the legacy of those Harlem Renaissance artists—poets, illustrators, musicians—who linked the nation’s destruction of black bodies through lynching to the Crucifixion of Christ.
Similarly, his Ecce Homo, after Anthony Van Dyck, speaks to the mass incarceration of black men, who, whether innocent or not, are made victims of the New Jim Crow, as Michelle Alexander calls it. Could it be that certain inbred fears or prejudices are responsible for the sometimes wrongful arrests and convictions of African Americans, who make up a disproportionate amount of the United States prison population?
Gender is another element Wiley plays with: he sometimes has males pose as female saints and vice versa, leading critics to describe his work as postgender. For example, a man stands in for the prophetess Anna, who upon seeing the infant Christ presented by his parents in the temple “began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38). Giotto’s Presentation in the Temple—the 1305 fresco from the Scrovegni Chapel and the later, very similar panel painting—provided models for Wiley’s composition.
As with almost all his works, Wiley has removed the figure from her/his narrative and spatial context, setting a naturalistic “Anna” against a decorative backdrop. Golden tendrils swirl about like incense, passing over the figure’s Broncos jersey and jeans. His raised hand gestures toward (the out-of-frame) God incarnate—beholds and shares this blessing.
In a photograph series called Black Light, male models pose as the Annunciatory Angel, the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdelene, and Saint Francis, inspired by Old Masters from Italy, Spain, and France.
I especially like Wiley’s Saint Francis, dressed in long-sleeved plaid, black denim, and a sideways ball cap. Here he is during a forty-day fast, receiving an angelic vision that unites him to the pain and suffering of Christ—and that imparts to him the five stigmata that he bears throughout the rest of his life. A chain-link fence, flower wrapped, pierces through his right hand and seeks entry into his side.
One of my favorite Wileys on display at the VMFA is Leviathan Zodiac, part of his World Stage: Israel series.
Figurative painting has few precedents in Jewish art, so Wiley looked to intricately patterned papercuts—a form of Jewish folk and ceremonial art—for inspiration. His Leviathan Zodiac is based on a nineteenth-century papercut from eastern Europe whose central design is a highly stylized menorah encircled by Leviathan (a sea monster referenced in the Bible) and surrounded by signs of the galgal ha-mazzalot (zodiac). The fish shaped as a circle, its tail in its mouth, is the most common representation of Leviathan in Jewish folk art of the past two or three centuries. The zodiac is also a fairly common motif, having been first mentioned in the medieval kabbalistic Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Formation) and in the late fifteenth-century Midrashic anthology Yalqut Shim‘oni.
All this forms the backdrop to Wiley’s portrait of an Israeli Jew, who’s haloed by the outer ring of the design. Birds flutter about his head, and another winged creature blows a shofar.
The hand-carved wooden frames in Down are the most elaborate of any series. Leviathan Zodiac is topped by the tablets of the law, supported by two lions and overshadowed by the blessing hands of a priest—a common tableau in Jewish art, as demonstrated in this piece by Marcus Charles Illions:
Though Wiley is most recognized for his large-scale canvas paintings, he has also done smaller paintings on wood and has designed stained glass.
Inspired by Byzantine iconography, his Iconic series consists of intimate altarpiece portraits of Elijah, John the Baptist, Saints Paul and Gregory Palamas, Archangels Gabriel and Michael, and Jesus as king and high priest.
A monk of Mount Athos in Greece and later the Archbishop of Thessalonica, Gregory Palamas was a preeminent theologian of the mystical prayer tradition known as hesychasm. Because of his numerous writings, he is traditionally shown holding a book or a scroll. Here he holds the book Icons and Saints of the Eastern Orthodox Church from the Getty Museum’s Guide to Imagery series, while his other hand approximates the Greek letters IC XC (for “Jesus Christ”). As throughout the series, Wiley has inscribed the name of the sitter, rather than the canonized saint of the painting’s title, on the gilt frame.
In 2014 Wiley executed a series of stained glass portrait designs, which were actualized by artisan manufacturers in the Czech Republic. They’re all based on windows by nineteenth-century French artist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.
Saint Adelaide served as Holy Roman Empress from 962 to 973, alongside her husband Otto I. According to the online Catholic encyclopedia New Advent, “She took no revenge upon her enemies; her court was like a religious house; she multiplied monasteries and churches in the various provinces, and was incessant in her efforts to convert the pagans of the North.”
In Ingres’s stained glass design (and Wiley’s redesign), Saint Adelaide holds in her left hand a scepter and globe (symbols of empire) and a book (she assisted her husband with her knowledge of Latin, which he never learned). With her right hand she dispenses a gold coin to the poor (she was known for her charity).
Saint Amelia (or Amalberga) is an eighth-century noblewoman from Belgium who was devoted to a life of chastity. Her beauty, though, attracted the attention of Charlemagne; when she resisted his advances, he unintentionally broke her arm, but it miraculously healed.
Saint Remi (or Remigius), bishop of Reims, converted Clovis I, king of the Franks, to Christianity in 496. Clovis’s baptism led to the conversion of the entire Frankish people. In this portrait he is shown raising an empty vial, a reference to a miracle he performed: when a dying pagan asked him for baptism, there were no sacramental oils available, so he prayed before two empty vials, and they filled with oil from heaven. The dove signifies God’s presiding over baptisms.
Saint Ursula was a Romano-British princess who, along with her eleven thousand handmaids, was killed by Huns while on pilgrimage.
The use of women as portrait subjects is a newer addition to Wiley’s body of work. His World Stage: Jamaica series features two biblical hero(in)es: Ruth and John the Baptist.
These are only some of the many religious figures Wiley has painted over his fifteen-year career thus far. Others include Judith, Saint George, Saint Benedict, Saint Clement, Saint Anthony of Padua, and The Virgin Martyr Saint Cecilia (after Stefano Maderno). Whereas “whiteness” and “holy” have long been conflated in Western art, Wiley proclaims holy blackness. His racialization of beloved Christian saints prompts us to recognize the dignity and sacredness of people of color, the imago Dei in which we all are made.
To me the interchangeability of the sexes was a bit of a barrier to connecting with the pieces in a devotional way, but I don’t think Wiley intended that use. (Still, I think portions of “A New Republic” would make an excellent church exhibition!) Playful and political, exultant and subversive, Wiley’s work provides us with new pictures of heroism to supplement those bequeathed to us by the European Old Masters.
To view more art by Kehinde Wiley (or the above in higher resolution), visit http://kehindewiley.com.