The New York artist 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.” Wiley challenges the pre-eminent artistic language that has ignored people of colour for hundreds of years. Taking up the visual vocabulary of glorification of Byzantine, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical portraiture, he puts young Black men in positions of power. This approach yields hyperrealistic, stylized portraits of today’s “Black and Brown men,” as the artist himself describes them.
Wiley’s source for Simeon the God Receiver is a fifteenth-century icon of the Novgorod school. The athletic body of its model, Eric Murphy, is covered in tattoos with multiple, although sometimes obscure, meanings: a rosary evoking religion; a portrait of Murphy’s son; the logo of the magazine Rolling Stone, a reference to pop culture; and the phrases Hated by Many and Loved by Few, sometimes associated with hip-hop and street gang culture. The transformation of Murphy into Simeon (a figure in the Gospel of Luke), granting him redemption and saintliness, is remarkable. The botanical motifs and devotional posture contrast with the powerful physique and striking tattoos, emphasizing the subject’s grace, nobility and refinement. Such reappropriation of the Western portrait is consistent with Afro-American young people’s proud self-assertion through taking control of their own image.