Who would have thought paintings of young African American men imitating 18th and 19th century European aristocrats would be such a sensation? Artist Kehinde Wiley probably never dreamed his vision would score him a segment on NBC’s The Today’s’ Show and a full-page discussion in Newsweek. The popularity of Mr. Wiley’s work over the past few years has spawned both celebrants and critics, essentially for the same reasons: paining and photographing young black, brown and tan men customarily seen as the “Other” and classifying it as significant art.
The idea of the “Other” is broadly used in social psychology, sociology and philosophy to describe a state of consciousness in which societies, groups or individuals differentiate themselves from others who they judge as inferior to themselves. The use of the “Other” is often how we construct our self-image at the expense of people who don’t share our values, ethnicity, class, religion, etc. The concept of the “Other” is not always negative; it can help us appreciate differences in people unlike ourselves. But too often we construct a boogieman using the “Other” as the object of fear and fascination. We articulate our boogieman by uttering words like ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘those people’, or ‘niggers, ‘spics, whops, faggots,’ and so on. Wiley’s has taken a historically reviled “Other” - young inner city African American males – and made them the subject of his work. This begs the question whether his work bolsters dangerous differences or deconstructs notion of the black male as the “Other”.
This past October Kehinde Wiley gave a 45-minute lecture at the High Museum in Atlanta. As a fan of his work and slightly turned on by an artist who unashamedly paints young black men in their uniform of choice I decided to go with a friend. We got there early enough to select our seats and chat before the presentation. As the hour grew closer to Mr. Wiley’s talk the hall filled to the brim with mostly white people with a healthy sprinkling of black and brown folks present to spell the whiteness. I was amazed that so many people paid at least $10 to hear an African American man discuss his paintings of young black men mimicking poses of 18th and 19th century white aristocrats. Then it struck me. These white people are here because Wiley has performed a service for them. He has made safe for whites to admire and engage young black men without having to do that in real life. For that matter, he made it safe for some black people, too. The “Other” hanging on the wall in a neat frame insulate suburbanites so they are free to admire what they usually don’t see on their streets. Mr. Wiley pointed out during his presentation that while he was in school white people would ask him why is he always painting black people. He said he responded by asking why do you always paint white people. The crowd at the High roared with a thunderous clap of approval. I wondered how many people who clapped had the same question on their mind. As remarkable as the paintings are I could not help but wonder how many people would actually challenge their own “Othering” of black males they spot everyday on the street, in restaurants, in offices and in the White House.
During his talk at the High Mr. Wiley said his inspiration for painting ‘us’ was “to reconfigure the image of how the public sees people that look like [himself]”. His purpose is understandable given that he grew up in the heart of South Central Los Angeles in a single parent home. He is swinging his paintbrush at the distorted view that young urban men of color are all D3 - dangerous, dysfunctional and must be distanced. He’s cracked the façade of Major and Billson’s concept of the “cool pose” by transporting these young men into a surreal and ornate fantasy world. Mr. Wiley subtlety reminds us the patron that Black men too have dreams of greatness.
But perhaps Mr. Wiley’s art is more than just painting self-portraits, so to speak. Maybe his work is more cathartic than he lets on. He’s trying to reconcile where he is now with where he came from. His art might be an attempt to ‘’check himself” after swimming so long in the pool of privilege. Visiting art museums as a child, encouraged by his mother to feed his hunger for art, attending a celebrated art institute in San Francisco and then earning a masters of fine arts at Yale is certainly not the sociological prediction one would have for a black boy growing up in an area riddled with poverty and crime. Let’s face it – New Haven, CT (where Yale is located) is a galaxy away from Crenshaw Boulevard in South Central LA. No one can seriously ridicule him for getting out of his ‘hood. But is he removed enough from his roots to maybe himself see brothas as the “Other”? Perhaps his work is tug of war between pristine New Haven and hood-life in South Central Los Angeles. After all, his idea of painting black and brown men was inspired by crime in the ‘hood.
While struggling to get his work noticed after graduating from Yale he picked up a copy of a police mug shot off the ground while walking in Harlem. The paper featured the face of a handsome young African American man who was wanted for a felony. He thought that the face on the page had a story behind him that needed to be told. Cathartic or not, maybe painting black, brown and tan faces to add some “color” to renowned museums is what he planned to do all along. After all, he makes it no secret that while admiring the master works in museums as a youngster he questioned why there was no “black people on the walls” borrowing a phrase from Buggin’ Out in Do The Right Thing. I think that’s a good thing regardless of whether his work is therapeutic or not.
Whatever the motivation for his work, it cannot be denied that his prints are powerfully subversive if only because they present the “Other” in ways that stir the conscious. How often do museum patrons see portraits featuring urban black males hanging on the walls? Mr. Wiley present these no-name brothers as men with souls when the ‘spin doctors’ would have the world believe otherwise. Opinion shapers keep images of black and brown men at the ready to entertain or terrify us. The image of the “Other” sells tickets or public policy; whichever is most profitable at the time. What a surprise to see young black men in their everyday get-up posing like rich aristocrats from 18th and 19th century art. Young African American men are usually shoved into one of the neat categories of athlete, entertainer or criminal. We just can’t be regular men. For example, Mr. Wiley pointed out in his lecture last month that white people frequently have asked him where did he find the rappers that he painted. It’s just assumed that black men have to be the “Other” in one fashion or another.
Even though the French, English and Italian aristocrats in the original portraits probably made their wealth on the backs of Africans and other people of color, Mr. Wiley’s art can be seen as an attempt to rescue the aura of black men who are symbolically trying to fit into the Western world’s image of success. Mr. Wiley is subverting the privileged poses of the well-heeled aristocrats by replacing them with black men that we see every day. The poses that the young men assume are certainly not what would be considered manly by 2010’s standard. Today’s homophobia would likely regard these black men’s poses as gay, while others may see them as a softening of the black male image that is “sold” as hard. Whatever the verdict one can’t deny the sensuality and depth not often seen on faces of inner city black males.
Mr. Wiley’s work is also very erotic; maybe it’s too erotic to fully get his message across. These colored boys aren’t the only black men he saw, but they were the only black men he selected. I wonder if Mr. Wiley would have even selected the models were they not so handsome and sexually titillating. He is clearly a gifted painter. His skills are unquestionable. But his paintings are as much a wink to the young black buck stereotype as it is art or a subversive statement. Make no mistake; Wiley’s work is dangerously close to the voyeurism of black men. Just listen to the reaction of young girls when they see Mr. Wiley’s prints. It’s usually a contest to judge who is the hottest model in the portraits. I suspect that other girls and guys of various age, race and sexuality keep a scorecard, too.
Important visionary artists always circumvent the ‘now’ in favor of presenting what’s ‘next ’. Paul Gauguin, the French Impressionist master said that art is either plagiarism or revolution. Mr. Wiley’s work may be the first influential artistic [read: discussed by a broad spectrum of art critics] expression from the MTV, BET video age that is responsible for some of what we assume about black men - both good and bad. The fact that he used good-looking unknown African American men with a certain swagger that he encountered on the street is an indicator that his work is not for Jacob Lawrence or Henry O. Tanner or any of the Harlem Renaissance crowd. But at some point his palette has to expand beyond black, brown and tan men mimicking poses in street wear. After all, how provocative and original can one be if your work becomes predictable? There are only so many strikingly good-looking black and brown men in odd poses that the audience will swallow. Even his strongest allies will begin to wonder like the young girl who asked Mr. Wiley last month, “Why do you only paint black men”? If he sticks with this formula he certainly will sap the power of his work and run the danger of his art being an assortment of clichés. Just another pimp using black and brown bodies to fill his coffers. Let’s see if he is capable of deconstructing other “Others” in more creative ways. He may have been put on the map for his striking imagery of the African American males but he has to give us more. Otherwise he will become the VIBE Magazine of the art world: all superficial imagery with little substance. And that certainly would be plagiarism.
GQ Magazine did an exclusive on Kehinde Wiley in April 2013