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Race and Representation: Kehinde Wiley at SAM

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is at Seattle Art Museum through May 8, 2016.

April 14, 2016

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is a retrospective of one of America’s most powerful and influential contemporary artists and is at Seattle Art Museum through May 8, 2016.

Wiley is known for painting people of color in the heroic poses that the “Old Masters” of Europe reserved for kings, and queens and aristocrats. 

Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps, 2005, Brooklyn Museum, Collection of Suzi and Andrew B. Cohen

The first gallery of the Wiley show at SAM makes a grand statement. Viewers are looked down on by huge portraits of men on horses, preparing to conquer and claim. You could mistake them for Napoleon or King Philip II, but one is certainly Michael Jackson, in all the regalia he would have enjoyed in the 17th Century.  The other’s identity is unknown, but he is certainly a conqueror--on a rearing steed, sporting urban detail of camo, Timberland boots, starter, a bandana. And the backgrounds of both huge frames are cleverly manipulated to suggest nostalgia, but they lead to more complexity.  Wiley sets us up, and then creates a new field of detailed imagery.

Step into another gallery, and a more personal work unfolds. Yes, there are plenty of setting suggestions from the past; part of Wiley's genius is including a sly tour of Western art. But he demands you get past the spectacle of re-creation and theatre, because there are other ideas aplenty. For instance, Kehinde Wiley's portrait backdrops are often highly detailed with the intricate painting of plants, flowers and ornaments that not only serve to propel the beautiful human forms, but hold secrets as well. One of the plants Wiley depicts was actually not seen in North America prior to the introduction of chattel slavery.

“It opens up conversations in history, and that’s what a really good artist does,” says artist C. Davida Ingram.

C. Davida Ingram with Bound, by Kehinde Wiley, 2015

Morpheus is an immense canvas that shows a young man in completely relaxed and languid recline, and almost entwined in a blanket of flowery vines. His cap is pushed askew, and he’s in a tank top with gold chain, his brown hip peeking out of slouched waistband.  And eyes that saw you before you even entered the room.  Surely a pose seen before in history, but probably by a milk-white young damsel. This one has new power.

Morpheus, 2008, Collection of Laure Lee Brown and Steve Wilson, 21c Museum Hotel

Museum visitor Roy Brinson looks at Morpheus.  As a gay black man, he notices the confusion it presents. “He’s not supposed to give me those eyes ever,” continuing, “It’s completely knocking that stereotype out of the water—that as a black man you have to be that one style, that one look.”

Another gallery is dark, filled with devotional portraits in gilded and arched frames, reverence to beauty and pride. And then another room that is a sanctuary of stained glass portraits. The idea of saints and saviors is mixed with the guy you’re going to see on 1st Avenue when you exit the building.  Which brings up another beautiful trick of Wiley’s. Some of the people so gorgeously painted were met on the street and agreed to sit later for photographic studies. But some of them are models. You don’t know. Everyone is beautiful, in Wiley’s way. 

“It reminds me that in everyday life we shouldn’t be distracted by façade,” says Brinson. 

Ingram brings up another facet of Wiley’s work, the tendency to see it only through the prism of blackness.

“Often when we talk about black artists we flatten them.  We don’t let them simply be artists, we totally want to make race take up the entire picture frame.“

But Wiley forces us to look more intently at context, privilege, white supremacy.  And then unloads his indescribable talent in creating something completely new.

After Memling's Portrait of a Man in a Red Hat, 2013, Collection of Phoenix Art Museum

Ingram, a Stranger Genius Award winner, says “When we look at the history of image making, whiteness has done such a powerful job of dehumanizing.  So when we think about artist that go back and refract that and put us back in a human place, it’s so powerful.  And doing all of those things in one painting is so powerful to me.”

“What this says to me is that anyone can be elegant,” Roys says, adding, “It’s amazing to see someone who looks like me on a 10x10.”


Made possible in part by

Stephen Hegg

Stephen is a 25-year veteran of KCTS, producing a wide range of cultural and public affairs series, documentaries and arts programming.  His credits include PIE, Something in the Water  (PBS feature on Seattle’s indie music scene), the gala opening of Benaroya Hall, and documentaries on Asahel and Edward Curtis, Dan Sullivan and Doris Chase.  Seattle-born, Hegg is a graduate of Whitworth University and is also an accomplished violinist and avid cyclist.

More stories by Stephen Hegg