A New York artist influenced by the work of Kerry James Marshall, portraitist Kehinde Wiley has attained international acclaim with a vital message: “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.” (1) His sensational style burst into the art world in the early 2000s. This painting acquired at the Foire International d’Art Contemporain in Paris is the first work by the artist to enter a Canadian collection. (2)
Wiley’s work confronts an art historical lexicon that has omitted people of colour for hundreds of years. Drawing on Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical styles of Western portraiture, Wiley challenges the injustice of this omission by replacing royal, noble, religious or heroic subjects with portraits of African-American men. This approach yields hyperrealistic and stylized portraits of today’s “black and brown men,” as he calls them. Although women have appeared sporadically since 2012, Wiley depicts primarily handsome, young, muscular men clad in hoodies, jeans, bandanas, running shoes and other accoutrements of Black hip-hop culture. He portrays models – unknown men scouted off streets in urban centres – in settings and poses typically reserved for the white elite, thus offering alternatives to conventional images displayed in museums. Rather than being cast as servants, slaves or in roles identified with “sports, hypersexuality or anti-social behaviours,” African-Americans are depicted with dignity.
Wiley’s source for Simeon the God Receiver is a fifteenth-century icon of Saint Simeon from the Novgorod School at the Palazzo Leoni Montanari in Vicenza, Italy. The model, Eric Murphy from New Jersey, is shirtless, revealing a well-toned body covered in tattoos with multiple although sometimes obscure meanings: religion is evoked with a rosary; a portrait of the model’s son; the logo of the magazine Rolling Stone is a reference to pop culture; and Hated by Many and Loved by Few may be associated with hip-hop and/or gang culture. (3) Other tattoos include Loyalty is everything and Misunderstood; tears at the corner of his left eye; and three dots on the left eyelid, which may be a prison tattoo often worn by gang members that signifies “mi vida loca” [my crazy life]. Perhaps the most noteworthy tattoo, although not easily legible on the painting, is around the model’s neck: Every sinner has a future, a reference to Oscar Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
The fact that Wiley chose to transform Murphy into Simeon (the holy man cited in the Gospel of Luke, who, in the Temple, recognized the Infant Christ as the Messiah), granting him redemption and elevating him to sainthood, is remarkable. The botanical designs and the subject’s sacred stance contrast with his strong body and imposing tattoos, reinforcing his grace, nobility and refinement.
Through the media, education systems and other public institutions, Western society fabricates and perpetuates a certain vision of African-American identity. Wiley joins a generation of artists of colour whose drive for self-representation motivates us to consider this manipulation, along with notions of race and gender. His empowering works lead us to question the place of African-American men in the world, in hip-hop culture, and challenge various other assumptions and preconceptions. Wiley’s work is about “refusing to be invisible.” We observe formulaic representations of African-American male bodies as well; these explorations of masculinity have occasionally been attributed to Wiley’s sexuality – although he delegates the responsibility of interpretation to viewers.
Wiley’s rise to fame was not an easy one. His Nigerian-born father abandoned his family before Wiley and his twin brother were born, and he was raised by his mother. Culture was an integral part of their home life, in stark comparison with their Los Angeles neighbourhood where drugs and violence were part of daily life. Wiley received a B.F.A. from the San Francisco Art Institute and an M.F.A. from Yale.
Wiley is represented in some of the most prestigious collections in the United States. The exhibition Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Arts (2015), is touring the United States until 2017.
1. Brian Keith Jackson, “B-boy Stance,” Vibe, August 2003, p. 117.
2. A variant of this composition exists in a reduced format; it is in the collection of Edward Tyler Nahem in New York.
3. Hip-hop albums by Bootleg (2001) and Lil Keke (2008).
Kehinde Wiley (born in 1977), Simeon the God Receiver, 2015, oil on canvas, 212 x 159.7 cm.
In process of acquisition. © Kehinde Wiley