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Object of the Week: Mercedes Benz Coffin

In the 1970s, carpenter and carver Kane Quaye’s grandmother passed away. It was her lifelong, unfulfilled dream to travel on an airplane. In tribute, Quaye built her a coffin shaped as plane. She was laid to rest inside its upholstered interior, paraded to her grave and buried in her homeland. Quaye has since gained international acclaim for his coffins which are also popularly known as abebuu adekai or “proverb boxes”. The coffins celebrate the achievements, status and identity of the deceased. His legacy continues today at his workshop in Ghana, currently run by Quaye’s grandson, Eric Adjetey Anang.

As Quaye’s work gained renown throughout the art world, his creations were built for two very different purposes: as coffins for burial or as art objects for display. Gallerist Bill Wright commissioned the Mercedes Benz Coffin in 1991.[1] It is a nine-foot wooden sculpture carved to resemble a white luxury car now displayed under a Plexiglas box in SAM’s galleries. Placing this coffin in a museum raises questions about how art can help people process loss.

When in the galleries, I ask students to look closely as they walk around this intriguing sculpture. What are we looking at? What is happening in this object? Students comment on the scale of the car, the non-functioning wooden wheels, the curtains covering the windows, and the crack in the surface where the lid separates from the base. Eventually someone reads the license plate and realizes this object is a coffin (and eventually one wide-eyed student asks if there is anything inside it). We share the story of the artist’s process and ask students what object they would select to symbolize their own lives. Teaching from Mercedes Benz Coffin, I often find myself talking about concepts that are difficult to navigate, just as the last several months have made many hard truths newly visible.

In my research to write this post, I found a list of custom coffins that were created in Quaye’s workshop. It reads like a poem:
Sardine for a fisherman
Lion for a hunter
Parrot for a university lecturer

Chicken with chicks nestled beneath wings for a business woman, mother and grandmother

In this workshop list, I see an echo to the names the New York Times published to memorialize 100,000 lives lost in the United States to COVID-19:
Liked his bacon and hash browns crispy. Fred Walter Gray, 75, Bentonville AK
Immigrated to the United States three years ago. Jessica Beatriz Cortez, 32, Los Angeles
Could make anything grow. George Freeman Winfield, 72, Shelburne. VT

I am also reminded of the signs seen at protests across the United States calling out the names of the many recent victims of police violence against Black people.

We are living in a season of immense loss. When we look back, what  symbols will be selected to memorialize this time and the lives within it? An N-95 mask, a Black Lives Matter protest sign, a desk used for remote learning, a loaf of homemade bread? Museums and community collectives have already begun to gather and archive such objects. It’s curious to think how this current reality will appear mirrored back to us on display behind glass. How much of this time and ourselves will we see reflected? How can we symbolize the lives lost and the spirit that continues?

Regan Pro, SAM Kayla Skinner Deputy Director for Education and Public Engagement

Images: Mercedes Benz coffin, 1991, Kane Quaye, wood, paint, 25 x 35 x 101 in., Gift of Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb and Mark Groudine and Cynthia Putnam in honor of Pam McClusky, 93.163 © Kane Quaye. Photo: Nathaniel Wilson. Paa Joe’s Coffin Workshop, Ghana, 2005. Photo: Alida Latham. A sign at a Black Lives Matter protest, Lake Worth, Florida, 2020.
[1] More information on Mercedes Benz Coffin: http://art.seattleartmuseum.org/objects/10007/mercedes-benz-coffin?ctx=d888c9af-d373-4fb3-a318-37fae579d652&idx=26

Object of the Week: Between Rabbit and Fox

Acquired last year and newly installed in SAM’s third floor galleries, Jeffrey Gibson’s 2017 painting Between Rabbit and Fox is a commanding and alluring work. Measuring 70 x 50 1/8 inches, the painting’s luminous acrylic and graphite surface, with its alternating and overlapping blocks and triangles of color, captivates from even across the gallery.

A citizen of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and also of Cherokee heritage, Gibson grew up between the United States, Germany, and Korea. Much like his personal background, which evades easy categorization, Gibson’s artistic practice engages a wide range of materials, ideas, and forms. He has characterized his mode of making in the context of anthropophagia, borrowing from Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), whose concept centers on the idea of metaphorically cannibalizing, or absorbing, other cultures as a way to gain strength and assert creative autonomy.[1]

Abstraction is inextricable from the long and unique histories of Indigenous visual and material culture in America. Gibson, deeply invested in these histories, also forges his own connections to Modernist geometric abstraction. Whether he blends the hard edge abstraction we see in parfleche designs with the abstraction of Modernist painting, or reimagines traditional beadwork for entirely new applications, Gibson is able to succinctly explore complex themes of cultural hybridity and the history of abstraction and craft.

Gibson has, over time, learned to embrace and celebrate a certain state of “in-between-ness”—being between different cultures and different aesthetic histories.[2] And as the title of the painting Between Rabbit and Fox suggests, even the pattern we see is in-between. Like a highly abstracted Rorschach test or Magic Eye stereogram, our eye flits about the surface of the canvas, seeing both a stylized rabbit and fox flash before our eyes. This state of indeterminacy—of being in flux—is important for Gibson, and it’s important for us, as viewers, to experience and embody this hybridity (if even for a moment) as well.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections and Provenance Associate

[1] “Innovation and Tradition: Jeffrey Gibson Interviewed by Emily Zimmerman,” Bomb Magazine, May 6, 2019, https://bombmagazine.org/articles/innovation-and-tradition-jeffrey-gibson-interviewed.
[2] Jasmyne Keimig, “Jeffrey Gibson’s Like a Hammer Strikes Today,” The Stranger, Feb. 28, 2019, https://www.thestranger.com/slog/2019/02/28/39366995/jeffrey-gibsons-like-a-hammer-strikes-today.
Image: Between Rabbit and Fox, 2017, Jeffrey Gibson, acrylic and graphite on canvas, 70 x 50 1/8 in., Purchased with funds from the Contemporary Collectors Forum and General Acquisition Fund, 2019.30 © Artist or Artist’s Estate

Object of the Week: Story Scroll

Red is often associated with strong emotion, and not only anger, despite the name of a common red dye source: madder root.

A mid-18th century painting of Ganesh on cloth, from a village in Telangana, in the eastern Deccan plateau of India, is striking in part for its red background and red-bodied Ganesh. Painted with black outlines, with areas of yellow ochre, indigo, and white, it is enlivened with black and red dots. As Lord of Beginnings, this Ganesh was the initial image in a long vertical scroll of painted scenes, unrolled one section at a time in performances for a regional weaver community. The scroll, of which this is a section, would have originally been 30 to 50 feet long and depicted their origins from the celestial weaver Sage Bhavana. This ancestor fought off a giant demon weaver, and then created colors for the community’s use from its dead body—a scene depicted in the final image of the scroll also in SAM’s collection.  

The red of this painting may be from madder root—a dye from three species of the madder plant family that grows in areas of each continent. The few remaining painters of this Telangana tradition now use a ready-made ground red stone, but say that vegetable dyes were used previously.

At the time of this painting (ca. 1843), three red insect dyes were also available in India: lac from Southeast Asia, kermes (carmine) from an Asian beetle, and cochineal imported from the Americas. The insect pigments could produce deep reds, but kermes and cochineal faded quickly. These expensive reds required an enormous quantity of insects, as well. Madder was more available and inexpensive, more lightfast, and could produce many shades of red. A warm orange-red is perhaps the most common, with pinks and purples also possible. Madder root contains so many colors—five different reds, blues, yellow, and brown—that its dye produces a complexity not possible with synthetic dyes. It did, however, require special knowledge to make the dye and adjust the process for different shades.

Of the five red dye components in madder root, alizarin is primary, and was not created synthetically until 1869—long after several synthetic blues, greens, and yellows. Madder root eventually fell out of cultivation, and since then has been used in artisanal dyeing.

The process for creating the strong lightfast red developed in India (using a few unpleasant and smelly substances) was one of the most complex dyeing processes ever. A version known to Ottoman court painters was kept secret for several centuries.

To learn more about the history of dyes, pigments, and color in Asian art, the Gardner Center Saturday University series, Color in Asian Art: Material and Meaning, begins on October 3 with a talk by Jennifer Stager on the subject of a red pigment of the ancient world, titled “Dragon’s Blood or the Blood of Dragons.”

Sarah Loudon, Director, Gardner Center for Asian Art and Ideas

Da Fonseca, Anais. “Replication and Innovation in the Folk Narratives of Telangana.” ScholarlyCommons, 2019.
Finlay, Victoria. Color: A Natural History of the Palette. New York: Random House, 2002.
Pavani, N. and D. Ratna Kumari. “History of Telangana Cheriyal Paintings.” International Journal of Home Science 2019: 5(2): 461-64.
Image: Section of a story scroll of sage Bhavana (Bhavana Rishi Mahatmyan Patam), ca. 1843, Indian, opaque watercolor on cloth, 58 x 34 1/4 in., Gift of Leo S. Figiel, M.D., Detroit, Michigan, 76.41

Object of the Week: Oiling

Faig Ahmed is a textile artist and sculptor based in Baku, Azerbaijan, who uses both traditional and modern carpet-making techniques to create something unexpected. His work, Oiling (2012), begins as a traditional wool-knotted Azerbaijani carpet, but then transforms and spills into a fluid, modern form as the pattern and weaving technique are altered.

Carpets have always occupied a place of interest for Ahmed. As a child, he entertained himself by rearranging motifs he found in the carpet on the floor of his grandmother’s home. Unable to keep his ideas contained solely to his imagination, he cut out symbols from the carpet and moved them into new positions. His interest in the potential of traditional carpets to carry and transmit new stories stayed with him into his professional artistic practice.[1]

For Ahmed, the carpet is a “cultural code, or DNA, incorporating a language of universal signs that has been carried across generations and cultures through the immemorial migration and intermingling of peoples, in this case along the Silk Road trade routes.”[2] Traditionally, in Azerbaijan, women were expected to weave a carpet before their marriage as part of their dowry. Today, those traditions and craft knowledge are no longer common, but there are still local weavers who continue to weave by hand. Ahmed works in collaboration with these women, based in the village of Bulbule not far from his studio in Baku. These weavers use the same hand-weaving techniques to create cut pile wool carpets that have been used in the area for hundreds of years. Ahmed explained in an interview that working with these women to realize his designs means he is constantly learning. “They teach me the meaning of symbols, but they are always trying to bring me back to tradition!”[3]

The title of the work in SAM’s collection, Oiling, might have a dual meaning referring both to the oozing shape in which the carpet’s design descends, and to the artist’s country’s relationship with oil. Azerbaijan has been connected to oil for hundreds of years. Medieval travelers to the region remarked on its abundant oil supply. In 1846, Azerbaijan drilled its first oil well in Bibi-Heybat—more than a decade before oil was discovered in the United States. By the 19th century, Azerbaijan produced more than half of the world’s oil supply.[4]

In the words of the artist:

“The value of the Carpet for art is the fact that this object included layers of millennial stories that could be instantly translated into modern language. Through my work I am asking, where are the boundaries of craft and art? And carpet itself creates questions on cultural boundaries. As an artist, I was looking for a modern language of art to talk about the future, but I found an ancient one and started talking about the present. And in the present, there is no value more important than life itself.”[5]

– Faig Ahmed

Traci Timmons, SAM Senior Librarian

[1] Jessica Hemmings, “Faig Ahmed,” Surface Design Journal, Spring 2015: 38-43.
[2] Cathryn Drake, “Faig Ahmed at Yarat,” [exhibition review] Artforum (February 2017), https://www.artforum.com/inprint/issue=201702&id=66123, accessed September 2, 2020.
[3] Hemmings, Ibid.
[4] Mir Yusif Mir-Babayev, “Azerbaijan’s Oil History: A Chronology Leading up to the Soviet Era,” Azerbaijan International 10.2 (Summer 2002): 34-40, https://www.azer.com/aiweb/categories/magazine/ai102_folder/102_articles/102_oil_chronology.html, accessed September 2, 2020.
[5] Interview with Maria Rosaria Roseo: “The Carpet as a Cultural Metaphor: Interview with Faig Ahmed,” Artemorbida Textile Arts, https://www.artemorbida.com/il-tappeto-come-metafora-culturale-intervista-con-faig-ahmed/?lang=en, accessed September 7, 2020.
Image: Oiling, 2012, Faig Ahmed, hand-knotted wool, 59 × 39 1/2 in., Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, 2013.13 © Faig Ahmed

Object of the Week: Mandala: Zone of Zero

I witnessed 9/11, and was very much shocked and affected by the traumatizing and violent terrorism. This terrorism made me contemplate a lot on dogma of religion and its extreme violence against humanity, and at the same time, on peace for the world. I wish for a harmonized society: a Utopia.

– Kimsooja

In the inaugural exhibition Be/Longing: Contemporary Asian Art at the transformed Seattle Asian Art Museum, Mandala: Zone of Zero by globally acclaimed artist Kimsooja triggers memories of a recent past—9/11—but also sadly echoes what is happening in our even more divided world today. Displayed in its own dark room, the mixed media installation consists of three circular jukeboxes spinning in mesmerizing circles, each casting its own dimly-colored glow. Playing simultaneously from the jukeboxes’ speakers are Tibetan, Islamic, and Gregorian chants, all three hymns mixing and blurring until they are indistinguishable from one another.

Kimsooja was first inspired to create this work when she came across a gambling shop on New York City’s bustling Broadway. The circular jukebox, which she saw in the shop’s window, struck her as astonishingly similar to traditional Tibetan Mandalas—intricate designs meant to symbolize the universe and aid deep meditation. From its Obangsaek color scheme (the five traditional Korean colors of white, black, blue, yellow, and red), to its circular movement mimicking the cycle of life, to the speaker at the center symbolizing the completion of the self as an awakened being, for Kimsooja “all the elements of this kitsch jukebox speaker that matched with the sacred and religious Mandala system were ironical and intriguing to me, and that urged me to create a piece of art.” The subsequent combination of American pop culture and Buddhist symbolism is even expressed in the title: Mandala: Zone of Zero. However, what makes us ponder further is the meaning of “zone of zero.” Does it refer to the spiritual unification of mind and body, creating a perfect state of “zero”? Or does it simply express an emptiness—a sense of “zero”— that comes with the commercialization of religion?

The work is further enriched by the three chants, which surround the viewer in an almost dream-like fashion. Each recording was sourced at a different religious location. Most notably, the Buddhist Monks’ “Mandala” chant was recorded by Kimsooja’s brother in the same Tibetan temple that is home to the Dalai Lama.

Mandala: Zone of Zero’s call for religious tolerance was particularly topical at the time of its creation in the years following 9/11. Kimsooja herself was in New York on the day and bore witness to the tragedy, as well as to the years of violence and war that followed between the United States and the Islamic world. But the catastrophic event also made Kimsooja long for peace in the world, wishing for “a Utopia.” This duality between discord and harmony can be heard quite literally in the entrancing chants that Kimsooja sources in her piece. At times, the different hymns seem to clash against one another harshly and, in other moments, blend lullingly together, mingling and merging until they approach a sound of unity, a feeling of tranquility, a sweeping state of zero.

— Isabelle Qian, former SAM Curatorial Intern; Xiaojin Wu, Curator of Japanese and Korean Art

Image: Mandala: Zone of Zero, 2003, Kimsooja, Three-channel sound installation with three jukeboxes, 9 min., 50 sec., Gift of William and Ruth True in honor of Chiyo Ishikawa and the reopening of the Seattle Asian Art Museum, 2020.13 © Artist or Artist’s Estate.

Object of the Week: 3 Panel Glyph #2

Seattle-based artist Denzil Hurley was born in Barbados, West Indies, and studied at the Portland Museum Art School and, later, the Yale School of Art, where he received his MFA in 1979. He was a professor in painting and drawing at the University of Washington for twenty-three years before retiring in 2017.

Known for his quiet, monochromatic abstractions, Hurley often finds himself in the company of abstract painters who came before him, such as Kazimir Malevich and Ad Reinhardt. However, Hurley—in a move that might appear heretical to these painters of earlier generations—introduces sculptural interventions to his otherwise subdued compositions.

In 3 Panel Glyph #2—part of a series inspired by the artist’s recent visits to Barbados and the island’s built environment—three stretched canvases are mounted to repurposed wooden poles and handles, a move that immediately transforms the monochromatic square paintings into objects resembling placards and signs.

Image of a group of protestors in 2020 with signs that read "Black Lives Matter" and "Get Your Knee off our Necks"

Hurley’s formal motivations are clear, and the works in his Glyph series are made through repeatedly building up layers of paint that are then removed to reveal a textured surface bearing the traces of his process. However, Hurley’s interest in form and structure is not purely abstract, for he is also deeply invested in the connection between the language of painting as it relates to speech. It is no accident that this body of work borrows its title from a term of Greek origin—glyph: a symbol that conveys information through nonverbal means.

In our current moment, it is hard not to see this work as a visual placeholder for the political, asserting its agency through its very presence, as well as what’s made absent. Though any explicit meaning is obfuscated, its form alone is reminiscent of signs carried by activists and protestors the world over. What the 3 Panel Glyph declares, however, is left for the viewer to decipher.

Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate

Image: 3 Panel Glyph #2, 2012-14, Denzil Hurley, oil on canvas on panel and sticks, 60 x 56 in., Modern Art Acquisition Fund, 2017.34, © Denzil Hurley

Object of the Week: Male Farming Animal headdress (Ci Wara)

Is it possible that a scaly mammal may have caused our current worldwide pandemic? Evidence suggests it may be. COVID-19 jumped species as part of a pattern set by several fatal pathogens: HIV, SARS, MERS, and Ebola. Trackers look back to a market in 2019 where pangolins were being sold for their scales and meat, which may have led to the transmission of the virus. Unfortunately, pangolins have been hunted and slaughtered to near extinction. Are we blind to their abuse, and now suffering the consequences? If you are less familiar with this creature, here is a tale of two ways of treating them—in art and in life.  

Among the Bamana of Mali, pangolins are admired for their stamina in pursuit of nourishment in a dry savannah homeland. These solitary, mostly nocturnal mammals look a lot like miniature dinosaurs, and use clawed hands to dig and extraordinarily long tongues to lick ants and termites out from hiding. Their main defense is a coat of scales, and whenever they are touched, they curl up into a ball. Other species who model survival skills in the savannah are the antelope and aardvark. Bamana carvers merge their features in headdresses, which appear in performances where young farmers are praised and encouraged by symbols signaling the need for awareness of the forces that their agriculture depends upon. Visually, Ci Wara headdresses depict an imaginative interspecies union, with animals flowing together to form a striking silhouette.  

Many artists have been inspired by Ci Wara’s inventive form. Willie Cole has looked carefully at examples at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and narrates a video that offers a step-by-step appreciation of their abstract geometries. He has also created his own version in Next Kent tji wara, 2007, now in the Met’s collection.

From the honoring of a pangolin in art, now we come to their treatment in life. Four species of pangolin are found in Africa and four are found in Asia. In parts of Asia, their meat is considered a wild delicacy and their scales are ground up and taken as a medical treatment. Over the last century, pangolin populations have been decimated by constriction of their habitats and the slaughter of their populations for trade to wildlife markets. Such actions open the path for pathogens to be transmitted to susceptible humans. Studies are now underway to also consider whether the pangolin has an evolutionary advantage that could lead to a possible treatment option. 

But, we return to the original question: if pangolins set off the virus that has overtaken the world, what is it a sign of? Will it happen again? Author Elizabeth Kolbert has written about how there is a “sort of intercontinental reshuffling…which is unprecedented in the three-and-a-half billion-year history of life.”  As we reshuffle, the pangolin reminds us of the need to be careful in how we treat the lives of other species.  

– Pam McClusky, SAM Curator of African and Oceanic Art

Images: Male Farming Animal headdress (Ci Wara), Bamana, Kenedougou region, Malian, Wood, 37 1/2 × 15 × 2 1/4 in. Gift of Katherine White and the Boeing Company, 81.17.24. Ci Wara performance, Eliot Elisofon archives, 1971. Illustration of hybrid animals in Ci Wara masks. Storefront sign painting, University District, Seattle, photo: Simba Mafundikwa, 2020. 

Object of the Week: 400 Men of African Descent

Seattle-based artist Marita Dingus has two works in the Seattle Art Museum’s collection: 400 Men of African Descent, acquired in 1998, and 200 Women of African Descent, acquired in 2009. Both were completed in 1997 as companion installations. These works are described as a “Hail Mary, a visual prayer” by the artist, where repetition serves as a spiritual act of catharsis (the pieces took over a year to complete) and a mode of reflection on the horrific conditions of slavery that became clear during a visit to West Africa.  

Dingus was inspired to create these works after visiting Elmina Castle, a Ghanaian fort where for two centuries enslaved Africans were held captive. She walked into rooms where 400 men and 200 women were held in dungeons of extreme confinement, with little light and almost no air. There, they spent their last days before the Middle Passage––a term that fails to capture the atrocities of the slave trade and the conditions of being shipped over the Atlantic. Upon her return, Dingus made a man or woman each day to mark this memory. Each becomes a new form of monument to honor the 200 women and 400 men held captive in Elmina Castle, the aggregate total of figures a powerful and haunting reminder of the conditions of chattel slavery.

As in Dingus’s larger sculptural practice, the miniature figures in 400 Men and 200 Women are comprised of discarded materials, in this case elements such as zipper pulls, Christmas light bulbs, and textile fragments. As articulated in Dingus’s artist statement, “My art draws upon relics from the African Diaspora. The discarded materials represent how people of African descent were used during the institution of slavery and colonialism then discarded, but who found ways to repurpose themselves and thrive in a hostile world.”[1]

400 Men of African Descent came into the museum through an unusual museum experiment.  In 1997, the installation was included in a unique exhibition in which museum visitors chose, via ballot, the acquisition of a work of art featured in the show. The options ranged from photographs and sculptures by contemporary African artists, to installations like this one by a  contemporary Black American artist.

Knowing that the Seattle community chose for this work to enter the collection is an important and, perhaps today, lesser-known element of the work’s history. More than twenty years later, 400 Men and 200 Women of African Descent continue to alert viewers to questions and ignite conversations about slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism. Hopefully, they might also be seen as an offering, an emblem of a community’s support for important dialogue and change.

– Elisabeth Smith, SAM Collections & Provenance Associate


[1] Marita Dingus, Artist’s Statement, https://www.travergallery.com/artists/marita-dingus/
Image: 400 Men of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, African Art Acquisition Fund, 98.43 © Marita Dingus. 200 Women of African Descent, 1997, Marita Dingus, cloth and mixed media, Gift of the artist and Francine Seders Gallery, 2009.54 © Marita Dingus.

Object of the Week: Anthony of Padua

Kehinde Wiley’s signature portraits of everyday men and women riff on specific paintings by Old Masters, replacing the European aristocrats depicted in those paintings with contemporary Black subjects, drawing attention to the exclusion of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives. His portraits are a thoughtful remix of grandiose patterns and hip-hop; there’s an intention behind their gaze, and often-subtle symbolism, which I’ll expand on.

After receiving his MFA from the Yale School of Art in 2001, Wiley’s career flourished. You may have been introduced to Wiley’s art in a number of ways.

1. A Major Commission
In 2005, VH1 commissioned Wiley to paint portraits of the honorees for that year’s Hip Hop Honors program. The theme was “the golden age of hip hop,” evidenced by custom portraits of the pioneering honorees: Notorious B.I.G., Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, LL Cool J, Big Daddy Kane, Ice T, and Salt-N-Pepa.

2. A Major Tour
The Brooklyn Museum organized a national exhibition tour Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic (2015–17), which included a stop at SAM in 2016, and featured SAM’s painting, Anthony of Padua. SAM’s manager of interpretive technology, Tasia Johnson, utilized an app in which visitors could scan the painting with their smartphones and learn more about the symbolism of some of the works on view.

Wiley’s 2013 painting is based on Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ late-19th-century stained glass window depicting Saint Anthony of Padua. In Ingres’ work, the Franciscan Saint holds a lily, the infant Jesus, and a Bible, symbolizing his purity, theological scholarship, and gifts as a preacher dedicated to Christ. Unlike Saint Anthony’s pose, meant to convey a Franciscan commitment to poverty and humility, Wiley’s portrait is infused with worldly seduction: his Anthony’s skin is flawless, his lips are pink, and his gaze, looking down at us, is seductive and empowered. A second depiction of Saint Anthony of Padua, an altar painting in Italy, is even more similar to Wiley’s sitter. Unlike the Ingres version, however, this saint’s body language is more open, facing the viewer. It’s clear that all versions have similarities: Saint Anthony’s left arm holds a book, and his right hand holds a flower or stick.

The orange panther patch on Wiley’s model’s jacket––prominently displayed on his right shoulder––is similar to that worn by the 66th Infantry Division of the US Army during World War II. The black panther was also selected as an emblem of power for the Black Panther Party, which used organized force for political advancement during the 1960s fight for civil rights.

Military jackets like the one worn by the sitter are not only US Army uniforms, but also high fashion pieces worn by celebrities like Queen Latifah. The item became popular for civilian-wear during the 1960s, when counterculture youth subversively wore army green jackets as antiwar commentary. With a young black man replacing a European saint in Wiley’s painting, the jacket’s history as a form of social commentary is further amplified.

3. A TV Cameo: Empire
In season one of Fox’s Empire, Wiley’s paintings were prominently featured in the home of the formidable Lyon family. There is a clear correlation between Empire and Wiley’s work: both are steeped in the bravado and style of hip-hop culture, and serve to upend antiquated notions regarding class, racial identity, and the politics of power. 

4. Celebrities as Collectors
They’re just like us! Celebrities are also fans of Wiley’s work. Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz apparently own a massive painting, and Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka own three paintings as of 2014.

5. The Obama Portrait
In February 2018, the official portrait of President Barack Obama was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery. The NPG welcomed record attendance figures that year with 2.3 million, which is due in no small part to the new portrait by Wiley, as well as a portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama by Amy Sherald.

I visited NPG in November 2018. I stood in line at the main entrance at least 30 minutes prior to opening hours and there were already dozens of like-minded visitors cued in line. When the doors opened, the museum staff––without any prompts––immediately announced which floors the Obama portraits were on. The floodgates had opened. Along the way, there were individual signs giving you clues that you were on the right path.

The painting depicts President Obama sitting in a chair seemingly floating among foliage. Surrounding him are chrysanthemums (the official flower of Chicago), jasmine (symbolic of Hawaii, where Obama spent most of his childhood), and African blue lilies (alluding to the president’s late Kenyan father). When I finally came face-to-face with the portrait, I knew it would be the closest I would ever be to him. 

Tina Lee, SAM Exhibitions and Publications Manager

Images: Installation view of Anthony of Padua, 2013, Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 72 × 60 in., Gift of the Contemporary Collectors Forum, 2013.8 © Kehinde Wiley, photo: Natali Wiseman. President Barack Obama, 2018, Kehinde Wiley, oil on canvas, 84 x 58 in. ©2018 Kehinde Wiley