I first discovered Wiley's work back in 2009 on a trip to the Virginia Museum of Fine Art in Richmond. Turning the corner, I saw his painting "Willem van Heythuysen" huge (8ft x 6ft), brash, bold red canvas demanding your attention. Seeing the title "Willem van Heythuysen" I ironically thought of some old white aristocratic male from some ancient part of history, and I was correct in that assumption. The painting is mirrored after the Dutch artist Frans Hals' portrait of the same name.
Willem van Heythuysen (1625), Frans Hals Willem van Heythuysen (2005), Kehinde Wiley
Since 2001, Wiley has been inserting black individuals into the generally white history of Western portraiture, placing them on a background of ornate, somewhat kitschy, decorative patterns based on textiles from various cultures. These huge paintings are also mounted within thick gilded gold frames, adding to the ostentatious adornment that is slightly humorous against the serious cultural subject matter. His paintings provocatively blur the boundaries between the traditional and the contemporary, drawing attention to the absence of African Americans from historical and cultural narratives and opening a platform for social commentary. Wiley uses real, everyday strangers walking the streets as his muses and allows them to pick a piece from art history to model. They are posed in modern clothing, clad in popular hip-hop brands and styles of today. Captured with such power and grace as the western European masters, generations years from now will look back on these paintings as their own art history.
A New Republic, the cumulative exhibition of his prolific 14-year career will be coming to the VMFA in Richmond this summer, but be sure to check out Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic while you wait to learn all about the talented artist and his cultural significance. For words used as eloquently as Wiley's paint brush, check out Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. And see if you can spot some of his paintings in the new hit TV series, Empire: Season One.
Review by Stevie Z.