I first saw the work of artist Kehinde Wiley at the Brooklyn Museum. It’s still there. You walk in, and on the left wall is an immense mural of a figure that looks somewhat like Tony Starks (Ghostface, not Downey Jr.), on horseback crossing the alps–a reworking of Jacques-Louis David’s 1800 oil-painting, Napoleon Crossing the Alps or Bonaparte at the St Bernard Pass.
I’ve seen the painting stop museum visitors in their tracks, as people with accents as diverse as Japan and Germany strain their necks up at the re-mastered masterpiece, snapping photos to show to the folks back home. I always wonder, what catches their eye? Is it the attention to detail that makes this new rendition so similar to the original work? Is it the stark contrast, that innately Hip Hop mashup of two things that seem so out-of-place with one another, yet which Wiley nevertheless seams together with the ease of a DJ? I mean that brother in urban army gear and Timbz looks comfortable atop his horse. Is it the mind-bending thought of this figure who could have been
plucked off stopped-and-frisked on any street corner in Brooklyn (or Queens, the Bronx, Harlem and Shaolin for that matter), now placed astride the Swiss Alps, pointing his way forward with all the swaggering confidence of a black would-be conqueror of the world? Who knows.
For me, Wiley’s style which takes urban African-American males, both well-known like Ice-T and Michael Jackson to those wholly unfamiliar (yet recognizable in their own way), and places them in the middle of historic European artistic settings/backgrounds/styles, falls right into the realm of speculative fiction. It reminds me of something out of Steven Barnes alternate history Lion’s Blood, as Wiley reverses the usual dynamics of white-male power, blurs the societal lines between “high” and “low” culture, and makes us question our pre-conceived notions of race and masculinity.
Recently, on Okayafrica, I ran across the picture above, which includes in the background Wiley’s
first second departure (of which I’m aware) from urban black men to urban black women–part of the album cover artwork for the recording artist Santigold. In case you’re wondering, she is every figure in that photo shoot–the don in the chair, the Bond girls that flank him and the subject in the Kehinde Wiley painting in the background. I know, that’s fly! The painting itself is a reworking of the 18th century English painter Sir Joshua Reynold’s 1782 Portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton. Might this then be the open-up for a new foray into the exploration of black womanhood in Wiley’s speculative masterpieces? (The artist has been criticized in the past for his lack of black women subjects, among other things, usually replaced by younger “feminized”–please don’t go all Judith Butler on me for the use of the term–depictions of black men) Hope so, because imagining MC Lyte over as John Everett Millais’s Joan of Arc or Nicki Minaj in Queen Elizabeth’s Armada Portrait, would be dope!
See a video on the making of Santigold’s Kehinde Wiley inspired album-cover here.
Kehinde Wiley’s work is currently featured at the Jewish Museum in NYC thru July 29 2012.
Update: Speak of the … The Root is reporting today: Contemporary painter Kehinde Wiley is set to debut his latest exhibition, “An Economy of Grace,” at New York’s Sean Kelly Gallery on Saturday, May 5. In the painter’s first exhibition featuring female subjects, Wiley uses his urban baroque style to celebrate the beauty of black women, who, he claims, are often marginalized as subjects in the art world. . . . “An Economy of Grace” will be at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York until June 16.