There is more to see from Kehinde Wiley’s work as a commitment to interrogating the question of exploitation in a racially divided society and the world in general. If you are familiar with Wiley’s work, you would know that he is of Nigerian lineage, an American painter famed for placing anonymous, beautiful black men in kitsch pastiches of Old Master portraits of the ruling class. He is also that rare thing, an artist who has broken through to a mass audience. In addition to his street-cast “boys”, as he has called his models, he’s painted a black pantheon, from hip-hop stars to Michael Jackson.
In his recent work, Wiley has not addressed black empowerment alone but also abandoned his familiar large-scale portrait format for seascapes, potentially dark and sinister with human history’s horrors, from slavery to the migrant crisis. The Royals have been replaced by lonely fishermen navigating the psychic territory evoked by romantic art.
He’s also made his first film, which speaks, amid paradisal swimming scenes, of how the self (so central to the romantics) has been violently denied to black people. In Voiceover, we get quotes from philosopher Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilisation, and African-Caribbean philosopher, revolutionary and psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, about “otherness” engendered by colonisation or imposed on the mad, as well as the medieval “ship of fools” and its pilgrimage for selfhood. While this brings an intellectual framework behind the seascapes somewhat neatly into focus, the thinkers’ weighty ideas about psychic violence and cultural trauma are never convincingly borne out in the works themselves.
Wiley’s work is full of its own contradictions, pre-empting any protests and leaving little room for conversation. You can visit him here.