Artist Kehinde Wiley Mixes Modern Figures With Old European Art Traditions
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And the first time I saw a Kehinde Wiley painting was out of the corner of my eye. I saw this blood red and gold pattern. It looked like satin wallpaper. And then I saw a Timberland boot, and I soon found myself in front of a massive portrait of a young black man. He wore a creamy white velour tracksuit but held a sword like a king from an old European oil painting. This is what Kehinde Wiley does. He takes contemporary people - oftentimes it's young black men, young black women - and put them in a pose you'd expect to see in the Louvre or the Met.
Now, this month, his retrospective called A New Republic opens in Fort Worth, Texas - a good reason to go back to a conversation I had with him this spring. Like his paintings, Wiley himself is eye-catching. The day I met him, he was gearing up for an evening cocktail party celebrating the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. He was wearing a navy blue suit with corn-silk-yellow paisley print.
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KEHINDE WILEY: A little piece of Senegal. I spent a lot of time in Senegal. In fact, I have a studio there.
CORNISH: Wiley is 38. He grew up in LA. His mom started him with painting lessons when he was 11. Now he's getting the retrospective treatment after more than a decade of work. Fifty-eight pieces are on display. I wanted him to tell me about that regal-looking man in the Timberland boots, the first painting of his I ever saw, which is one of the first paintings in the exhibit.
WILEY: The original painting, actually, is an old Dutch painting that depicts a man. He has his hand on his hip. His fist is turned outward, and he has a sword in the other hand. And it's a very regal look. It's very self-possessed. And in this particular painting that I chose to create, all of that pose is recreated with the exception that there is a young man who I met in the streets of Brooklyn back in 2006 who chose that painting as his pose. And here, he's wearing a Velour Sean John suit, a pair of timberlands, but that same sense of regal hauteur is there.
CORNISH: I noticed that you leave in the brands.
CORNISH: I see tags on sneakers. I see Adidas and labels. Why leave that in?
WILEY: Why take it out, would be the real question. The brands that people wear are serious business. I remember growing up as a kid in South Central Los Angeles back in the 1980s when people were being killed for Jordan sneakers. Branding says a lot about luxury and about exclusion and about the choices that manufacturers make.
But I think what the society does with it after it's produced is something else, and the African-American community has always been expert at taking things and repurposing them towards their own ends. This code switching that exists between luxury and urban is something that was invented in the streets of America, not on 6th Avenue.
CORNISH: I want to turn around to this painting behind us called the "Mugshot Study" because it doesn't look like anything else in the exhibit, and talk about how this painting came to be.
WILEY: Well, what this painting is is a portrait of a young black man possibly between the ages of 18 and 26 - I can't really say. He has these beaded necklaces around his neck - nothing more than a wife beater. It's a painting that's cropped, and, in fact, the way that I found this image was, I was walking down the street in Harlem, and I found this crumpled piece of paper. And on it was a mug shot. Presumably, it fell out of a police car. And it got me thinking about portraiture. It got me thinking about the choices that one has to make in order to be in a portrait of this type.
CORNISH: It's also the antithesis of the work people may recognize, right? Like, if anything, your work, for a lot of people, has been a rebuke of the mug shot when it comes to black men, right?
WILEY: It's a rebuke of the mug shot. It's an ability to say that I will be seen the way that I choose to be seen. All of the models are going through art history books and deciding, out of all the great portraits in the past, which ones do they feel most comfortable with, which ones resonate with them. And so I go through the studios with individuals who go through art history books and choose how they want to perform themselves.
CORNISH: Why use what people might consider old European art traditions? I think one thing, when it comes to African-American art forms, one of the defining features has been to create something wholly new - right? - to, like - to actually divorce yourself, in a way, from the old traditions - right? - whether it be jazz or whatever.
WILEY: Right. In fact, that's the rallying call of the avant-garde - to create something wholly new. The simple truth is that, rhetorically, we cannot do that.
CORNISH: You've been asked this question a lot, right? And it must be frustrating (laughter) to have people...
WILEY: Not at all.
WILEY: No, no. You're getting to the heart of my love affair with art. My love affair with painting is bittersweet. I love the history of art. You asked me about that moment when I first looked at this stuff and when I first fell in love with it. It was only later that I understood that a lot of destruction and domination had to occur in order for all of this grand reality to exist.
So what happens next? What happens is the artist grows up and tries to fashion a world that's imperfect. He tries to say yes to parts that he loves and to say yes to the parts that he wants to see in the world, such as black and brown bodies like my own in the same vocabulary as that tradition that I had learned so many years before. It's an uncomfortable fit, but I don't think that it's something that I'm shying away from it all. In fact, I think what we're arriving at is the meat of my project, which is that discomfort is where the work shines best. These inconvenient bedfellows that you're seeing all over this museum are my life's work.
CORNISH: When we talked to museum visitors yesterday, one of them actually said that they felt as though the work resonated with them in particular because of the events from the last year, the conversation about police brutality and the deaths of young black men, in many cases at the hands of police.
CORNISH: And I realize maybe that, also, is something I was feeling in my gut, that I was seeing.
WILEY: No, you're not making that up. You're not seeing something that's not there. This entire body of work comes out of a sense of vulnerability, and I love that you've arrived at that point because what I wanted to do was to look at the powerlessness that I felt as - and continue to feel at times - as a black man in the American streets. I know what it feels like to walk through the streets knowing what it is to be in this body and how certain people respond to that body, this dissonance between the world that you know and then what you mean as a symbol in public, that strange, uncanny feeling of having to adjust for...
CORNISH: What people think of you, yeah.
WILEY: This kind of double consciousness.
CORNISH: Well, Kehinde Wiley, thank you so much for walking us through the show. This was really lovely. And best of luck with the next 14 years (laughter).
WILEY: Thank you. It was my pleasure.
CORNISH: Artist Kehinde Wiley. I spoke with him back in May right before his mid-career retrospective closed at the Brooklyn Museum. It's now on the road and opens September 20 in Texas at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.