Art must discover and reveal the beauty which prejudice and caricature have overlaidAlain Leroy Locke
On December 10th, 2021, Kehinde Wiley’s latest exhibition, The Prelude, will open at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. For him it will be an unveiling of a new step in his artistic journey as the artist, best known for his portraiture (in particular the 2018 Presidential portrait of Barack Obama) takes on landscapes for the first time.
A recurring motif of his work has been to situate Black people at the centre of his work in ways that force the viewer to consider the lack of Black subjects in classical portraiture of the Western tradition, and through the unapologetic, direct re-presentation of Black people in oil on canvas, in galleries and auction houses destabilise the power of those traditions and markets, interrupting control of knowledge production in elite space. Hip-hop artists (such as LL Cool J, the subject of a 2005 portrait, who pointed out that Wiley ‘does some dope shit‘), trans Tahitians, Black people he has met and recruited in the streets of New York, or of Dakar where he has opened his artist studio that operates as a retreat/incubator of Black artistic talent, or in the markets of Hackney, or Brixton (the source for subjects featured in The Prelude), populate his pictures – and ask the viewer to look and then to look again.
It is a measure of his attention-grabbing, politically charged, large scale, yet disarmingly personal work that he has cultivated an audience that make his works a status symbol on walls of the most prestigious galleries internationally, as well as those of wealthy African American entertainment moguls. His creative industriousness has seen a breathtaking production of innovative ideas and interventions, riffing on the ideas of juxtaposed traditions, the translations of diasporic lives, and the disruption of value systems (and systems that create value) that seem too settled. Now he is creating for exhibition at the National Gallery, but equally relevant is his commercial work for global brand behemoths such as Grey Goose, or Puma.
Kehinde Wiley is not shy of political engagement in the moment, such as the streetwear clad Black man on horseback (self-referencing his well-known Napoleon image from 2005) presented as riposte to the defence of the bogus confederate statues of the American south, that he unveiled in Times Square in 2019. In 2018 prior to unveiling his Obama portrait, he opened am exhibition in St Louis featuring participants cast from the streets of Ferguson and north St Louis, connecting the President to Black Lives Matter protesters in a way many hoped the President might have been able to do himself in a less figurative manner. Engaged with Black struggles for justice, his work remains cognisant of the subtleties required to reappraise and reflect the beauty present in his every day; beauty that the classical, Western canon chooses not to see.
It is a measure of his standing, astride popular culture and elite art opinion (should that be unpopular culture?), that The Prelude is discussed as a coup for the National Gallery, rather than for the artist. For a Black, gay man to present his commentary, vision, skill, and artistry at this level is an opportunity for shared pride and inspiration. I hope that BLKOUT’s readers and members will find in Kehinde Wiley’s art during the exhibition – free to enter and on display until mid-April – a moment to reflect on the work that he will present.
Sharing the artist’s identifications of ethnicity and sexual identity will not automatically convey hidden insights or meaning. It may however illuminate what this remarkable artist is inviting us to see from a vantage point that rarely features in the ‘hallowed halls’ of high art. A social position that may be every day for many of us will be centred and broader public audiences asked to understand the images from their relation to what is seen as the margins.
Far from trivial, this process of empathising across social positions is what we do constantly – to the extent that white, cis het, privileged, male is our lingua franca – an unquestioned constant. Wiley’s work and our relationship to it – Africans in the West, formerly colonised in the not-yet-post-colonial, queer, ‘man-not‘ – demands us to seek an answer to, ‘what if . . .?’. However, for a change, his work asks the question not just of us. There is an opportunity within it to share some of the emotional/imagination labour that our social position requires of us just to function with optimism in our society – or at least draws attention to that which is ‘the work‘, of creating futures in which equity of esteem is a staging post on the way to fulfilling the potential of our shared humanity.
What I wanted to do was to take the good parts, the parts that I love, and fertilise them with things that I know to be beautiful – people who happen to look like me.Kehinde Wiley interviewed by Kadish Morris, The Observer 21/11/2021
Rather than identity constraining our imaginations, Wiley, and our relationship to his work acts as a gateway to their liberation, a route to discovering the universal in the specific.
I look forward to seeing Kehinde Wiley’s new work too because I want to revel in the expression of someone who seeks to tell it as it is, for him, in that moment. My guard is down, and my trust levels are high. Like the DJ who’s taste I trust, his experimentation with new forms is an invitation to join him on a journey. When forced to carry my scepticism into the club, the tenth obscure instrumental B-side from the selector I don’t have faith in, has me slipping away from the dancefloor, weighing up whether the only journey I want to embark on involves the night bus. It is in Wiley’s interpretation of the world as he has been able to process it that I look for what is shared, consider what is demanded from the insight he creates. In the same Kadish Morris interview for The Observer quoted above, the artist noted
To make the best work you have to make it intensely personal. You have to have faith in the fact that everything that you do as an artist can be seen through a political rubric . . .The best way to do it is to get really small and look at the details of your life, and to zoom in and find the beauty in the mundane.
Given the excess of lockdown mundanity and the growing demand for a new politics to match the new realities of post/mid-pandemic lives, if The Prelude can live up to the ambition set by the artist himself by making his response to Romantic landscapes ‘intensely personal’, then LL’s description would be apt; he would indeed be doing ‘some dope shit‘.