On a grey morning run recently, a house jumped out at me. I was startled by its impertinent peacock blueness and its egg yoke yellow window trim. How wonderful! In a sea of sameness, this house had some chutzpah! I was proud of this house for daring to be different, for daring to defy the codes of drab urban houseness.
Kehinde Wiley’s series of paintings, now on display at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, had a similar effect on me as that plucky house. The L.A.-born artist of Nigerian and African American descent creates massive, gorgeously painted canvases. The works feature alpha males in proud poses, surrounded by swirling flashy pastel and gold enamel patterns inspired by Jewish religious textiles, examples of which are also part of this exhibition. “I want to mine where the world is right now and chart the presence of black and brown people throughout the world,” Wiley says. The artist focuses not on people, in general, but specifically on men—on beautiful young men between the ages of 18 and 25 with a certain presence. He finds these men through a process of cruising the streets, sporting venues, clubs, and bars—homosocial environments that lend themselves to the artist’s process which he has dubbed “street-casting.”
Sometimes shimmering new icons need to be created in order to bust up old, worn out stereotypes. I am reminded of the lyrics from the song “My Conviction,” from the 1967 musical, Hair:
I would just like to say that it is my conviction
That longer hair and other flamboyant affectations
Of appearance are nothing more
Than the male’s emergence from his drab camouflage
Into the gaudy plumage
Which is the birthright of his sex
But Wiley’s radical recontextualizing of black and brown young urban men goes well beyond surface affectations. Curator Karen Tsujimoto writes, “Kehinde Wiley has turned the art of portraiture into an international performance, reordering connections between art, politics, power, and class through his grand portraits of black urban men from around the world.” Wiley has created several series prior to this one, which depicts men representing diverse aspects of the Black Diaspora present in Israel: Ethiopian, Arab-Israeli, Islamic, Rastafarian. Previous series of the artist’s World Stage Project depict young black men residing in China, Brazil, India, and Africa.
Kehinde Wiley’s portraits are about overcoming oppression, about re-presenting black men as creators of culture rather than as the victims or villains in the way that art and media so often casts them. The exhibition opens with a short documentary film that shows the artist interacting with some of his models. Viewers meet Kalkidan Mashasha, a musician whose work explores his Ethiopian Jewish Israeli identity. He uses hip hop to transmute years of repression he has faced as a black man in Israel. The rapper gazes at viewers from several of the lush canvases in the three large galleries on the museum’s second floor. In one of the portraits, he gazes at us somewhat dreamily, his lips slightly parted. He appears soft, peaceful, yet his look suggests innate power and indomitable hope. Mashasha is clad in a mustard-colored military-style jacket with patches of Ethiopia and Haile Selassie. Decorative flowery tendrils surround him and penetrate the foreground, flattening the space defined by the painting and obfuscating our sense of perspective. Emblems drawn from Jewish decorative tradition, such as the hands of a priest and Lion of Sudah, add to the sense that this is not just a portrait, but an icon.
Beautifully carved pairs of lions crown the rich dark wooden frames bordering Mashasha’s portrait and all of the paintings. The frames also incorporate text: the Ten Commandments for Jewish men; Rodney King’s 1991 quote, “Can we all get along?” for the Arab men.
As a whole, Wiley’s iconic/iconoclastic works are penetrating and vital. However, I am left with some questions. Is the transformation of oft-invisible persons into pseudo-religious icons ultimately helpful, or does it again “fix” these individuals in a way that does not allow them their whole humanity? Is there a danger that Wiley’s obsession with youth and beauty lead to a romanticization/fetishization of men who will age, have crises and triumphs not in line with the artist’s vision? Might the complete exclusion of women denote a homosocial, male-centered stance that is readily accepted, whereas an artist’s exclusion of men would bring up questions of man-hating militancy? Does the artist’s approach of creating series after series of these works of black men around the globe lessen the effect of iconoclasm, instead invoking a new conformity—of African American cultural influences subsumed by capitalist, chauvinist, ablist and youth-obsessed globalization?
Though these questions remain in my mind, I am grateful to have seen these lavish, gorgeously challenging works at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Like the proud blue house with canary trim that leaped out at me on my run, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits shatter the grayness and conformity of the everyday, leaving prismatic possibilities lingering in my imagination.