All posts in “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic”

Kehinde Wiley’s Galvanizing Impact

“The history of painting by and large has pictured very few black and brown people, and in particular very few black men. My interest is in countering that absence.”

Kehinde Wiley

Experiencing a meteoric rise on the art scene, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley has assumed his place as an influential contemporary American artist. Graduating from the influential Yale School of Art, Wiley received his MFA from the program in 2001. The artist went from the Ivy League to a leading art program—residency at The Studio Museum in Harlem. It was there that a lot of things came together for Wiley in the context of the show he was working on: he found inspiration in the assertive and self-empowered young men of the neighborhood. This kicked off the artist’s serious work in portraiture on modes of representation and the black body.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

“It’s almost like he’s looking back into history to envision a new present and a new future,” said Catharina Manchanda, Seattle Art Museum’s Jon & Mary Shirley Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art. Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is a 14-year retrospective of the artist’s work that features 60 works, including his signature portraits of African American men reworked in the grand portraiture traditions of Western culture, as well as sculptures, videos, and stained glass windows.

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

The Brooklyn Art Museum organized the exhibition, which is traveling to a number of cities around the country, experiencing a rousing reception. “He’s received a great amount of attention in part because the work is so captivating, but perhaps what adds special urgency to the work are the political discussions Americans have been having over the course of the last year regarding the lives of black men and women in this country,” Manchanda said. “There is so much possibility in this moment. It’s my hope that this exhibition will engage viewers in an important conversation, as well as create a galvanizing experience that will last long after they leave the galleries.”

Installation view of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic

Wiley does not copy traditional portraiture styles from the 18th and 19th centuries, but rather creates mashups where he’s drawing from many sources, like a jazz artist improvising or a hip hop artist mixing pieces of songs together using different ideas and references. The same process—mining elements and then combining them from various sources—fuels Wiley’s work: classic portraiture styles and floral wallpaper designs from the 19th century, among others, serve as inspiration. Altered in color as much as detailing, these compositions frame and elevate his contemporary subjects.

Also on view in the exhibition is the full length film, An Economy of Grace, which documents Wiley as he steps out of his comfort zone to create a series of classical portraits of African-American women for the first time. The exhibition includes works from this project and highlights Wiley’s collaboration with fashion designer Riccardo Tisci at the couture firm Givenchy to design gowns inspired by 19th- and 20th century paintings.

Don’t miss this exhibition— which closes very soon on May 8! We also invite you to hear from scholar and independent curator Tumelo Mosaka, who will be at Seattle Art Museum on Thursday, April 14, to explore topics related to the exhibition and Wiley’s unapologetic ability to address the historical absence of the black figure by creating portraits of his own desire.

Images: Photo: Stephanie Fink. Installation views of Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at Seattle Art Museum, Photos: Elizabeth Crook, © Seattle Art Museum.
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The lens behind the New Republic Community Portrait Project

Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic is on view at long last. As a part of the exhibition, SAM has launched New Republic Events, where SAM and Seattle-area community partners are highlighting events and performances focusing on themes found in Kehinde Wiley’s work, and also, New Republic Community Portrait Project. The Community Portrait Project invites volunteers to have their portraits taken by local photographers, and answer three questions: how do others see you, how do you see yourself and how do you want to be seen? The finished portraits and answers will be featured on the project’s website, as well as in SAM’s Community Corridor.

Local artists/photographers Carina A. del Rosario and Zorn B. Taylor are heading up the project, and we spoke with Carina about her background and the experience of working on the project.

SAM: Hi Carina! Thanks for speaking with us.

del Rosario: No problem!

SAM: Since you asked Community Portrait Project participants three questions, we’ll ask you three too. First up: Tell us a bit about your background and how long you’ve been a photographer.

del Rosario: I was born in the Philippines and immigrated with my family to Los Angeles when I was six. I love the energy and vibrant colors of urban life I grew up around, which in part led to my interest in street photography. When I moved here as a kid, I was curious about all the life going on around me but I was super shy. It may have been because I wasn’t confident with my English at the time. Over time, I really developed my English language skills in writing and speaking – though at the expense of my first language – but that helped bolster my confidence. I eventually got interested in journalism since it gave me an excuse to talk to strangers, to ask questions and tell stories. But I always loved how images and stories went together, whether in newspapers or in films. At Santa Clara University, where I graduated with a BA in Communication, I worked on the student newspaper and my friends there taught me photography and printing in the darkroom.

After a number of years writing, I decided to take up photography again and other visual arts classes because I wanted to make my writing more visual, more sensory. Eventually, I became more and more interested in the ability of photography and other visual art forms to tell a story that can be much more open to interpretation—that can hold more complexity and ambiguity. I’ve been working as a photographer and visual artist for about 12 years.

Community Portraits

SAM: Very cool. We’re glad you’re bringing your unique experience to the Community Portrait Project. Okay, next question: What’s your favorite thing about being a photographer?

del Rosario: Similar to being a journalist, being a photographer gives you an excuse or a tool for following your curiosity. It can certainly open doors to connecting with strangers. It can also shut doors if one doesn’t approach others with respect and openness. One of my early photography instructors (Raul Touzon on National Geographic) told me, “Give as much as you get. Be in the moment with people and the images will come.” I definitely get a charge when I can connect with people on a human level and that emerges in the photos.

SAM: What excellent advice. Okay, last question: How did you get involved with the Community Portrait Project, and what has the experience been like so far?

del Rosario:
Regan Pro (SAM’s Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Programs) contacted me about the Community Portrait Project and I jumped on it. I’m a teaching artist for SAM, so Regan and I have worked together for a few years. She also knows my work as an artist, particularly my Passport Series, which is a photo-based, interactive project that addresses identity, documentation, and discrimination. Through this project, I’ve worked with people from all walks of life to bust out of the boxes we all get squeezed into and present ourselves more holistically. Regan knew this would be akin to Kehinde Wiley’s approach for empowering “sitters” to determine how they want to be seen.

The experience working on the Community Portrait Project has been really uplifting and grounding at the same time. First, I love any excuse to work with Zorn. We have taught together and supported each other’s work for a few years, and I really appreciate the love and openness he brings into the work.

We photographed people from various ages and life experiences—a total of 40 people over three sessions. It’s hard to narrow down which ones were the most memorable stories because so many of them opened up in really interesting ways. One woman talked about how normally she’s really shy and closed in and that this was her challenge to herself. By participating in this project, she’s opening up to the world. I could totally relate to this since I remember making a similar decision when I was younger. There was another woman who seemed so deeply sad. She’s in a struggle to reclaim her sense of self, her own power, her happiness. I asked her to try to go back to a time when she felt whole and happy. To witness those emotions move through her, from sorrow to joy in a seconds, was an incredible honor.

Community Portraits

SAM: Wow. It sounds like you had many incredibly experiences working on the Community Portrait Project, and essentially got to peek into the inner lives and thoughts of strangers. Thanks for sharing with us, for being a part of the Project!

del Rosario: Thank you!

You can participate in the Community Portrait Project, too. Upcoming drop-in photo sessions will be held at SAM on Wednesday, March 3 and on Thursday, April 7. In the meantime, be sure to check out Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, on view now.

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Object of the Week: Anthony of Padua

You simply can’t miss the eye-catching posters and banners all over Seattle advertising our next special exhibition, Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. When you come for the free opening celebration this week—and do come!—you’ll see huge paintings from private and public collections across the world, including a gem from SAM’s own collection.

Anthony of Padua, a painting in the very traditional method of oil on canvas, measures six feet tall by five feet wide. The figure is imposing, the decoration bright and busy. His is an empowering posture borrowed from the aristocratic patrons of art history and conferred to a young person of color. The rococo frills that surround him speak of the joy of excess.

He brings together, as Kehinde Wiley’s work often does, two worlds of swagger. The original swagger portrait (a real term in art history used even by stuffy academics) developed in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. At the time, those who had the funds to do so might pay an artist to paint them in a very flattering pose, wearing elegant and expensive dress, accompanied by symbols of their knowledge or power. The idea was to show off your status, wealth, and noble character. You wanted to impress those around you and those who would see your painting long after you were gone.

More recently, swagger has been mostly informed by looks, attitudes, and language developed in street culture. Kehinde Wiley’s work picks up on both points of reference, which, when we think about it, are not so different. Urban Dictionary’s top definition describes swagger as “How one presents him- or herself to the world. Swagger is shown from how the person handles a situation. It can also be shown in the person’s walk.” The way to attain it has changed across cultures and across time, but swagger has always been about getting respect by portraying self-confidence. It’s always played out through language, body language, and dress.

To build his new swagger portraits, Wiley has developed a practice of “street-casting” to choose the models for his portraits. Wherever he might find himself looking—and Wiley has taken subjects from places as diverse as Brooklyn and Brazil, India and Israel—he strolls the streets, more or less living his life, but also waiting for a moment of connection with another individual. He’s allowing chance to play a role in selecting who makes it into these paintings, and then onto the walls of a gallery or museum. The models come to the artist’s studio with the instruction to wear everyday clothing and express their personal style. That’s just how the model for Anthony of Padua posed and is portrayed here: with his own coat and patches, teal pants, and octopus necklace.

Anthony of Padua in Seattle Art Museum's European Galleries

Anthony of Padua arrived at SAM in 2013, shortly after he was painted. Here, he was not destined for the Modern and Contemporary galleries, but found his home right away in the European Baroque galleries, surrounded by the likes of Veronese and Anthony van Dyck—one of the most successful to ever do a flattering portrait.

The historical figure who informs the title of SAM’s Kehinde Wiley painting is Anthony of Padua, who lived 1195-1231, and who was canonized in 1232. I like to think that SAM’s painting, if only because it shares his name and a resemblance to another artist’s depiction of him, carries some of the presence and virtues of the saint. In life, Anthony of Padua became known as a devoted student, one with a remarkable memory, and as a convincing, charismatic orator. In the Catholic tradition, he cares for, and hears prayers from, the poor, the elderly, expectant mothers, travelers, and seekers of lost things. Fittingly for us here in Seattle, he is also the patron of fishermen, domestic animals, and mariners.

—Jeffrey Carlson, SAM Collections Coordinator

Images: Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley (American, born 1977), oil on canvas, 72 x 60 in. Seattle Art Museum, Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8, © Kehinde Wiley. Photo: Robert Wade.
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