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Kehinde Wiley exhibit uses historic icons to expose systemic violence against Black people
Geoff Bennett: Kehinde Wiley is best known for his distinctive portrait of Barack Obama, becoming the first Black artist to paint a presidential portrait.
But Wiley has spent most of his career painting vibrant portrayals of everyday African American men and women. A new exhibition of his work focuses on grief and mourning and also asks, whose lives have value?
Jeffrey Brown traveled to San Francisco for our arts and culture series, Canvas.
Jeffrey Brown: A monumental painting, 25-feet-long, a young Black man, limbs twisted, lying amid in a colorful floral field, a contemporary image of grief and death that also evokes the history of image-making itself.
Artist Kehinde Wiley:
Kehinde Wiley, Artist: There's a tradition, and I love the tradition of painting that comes from Western Europe. I have spent much of my life learning it and trying to master it.
And in a lot of that stuff, I see sadness, but I also see dignity and respect. I see people looking at the life of Christ or the life of a fallen soldier and valuing their lives so much to make really great, beautiful works of art out of it.
I wanted to use that language and turn it towards people who look like me.
Jeffrey Brown: The exhibition An Archaeology of Silence at San Francisco's de Young Museum, dramatic in its scale and lighting, presents paintings and sculptures, 25 works in all, that use the iconography of art history to expose violence against Black men and women today.
An ancient sculpture, the Dying Gaul. from 200 B.C. Now a young man in a hoodie taking his last breaths. The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia, a 1610 marble sculpture, now transformed by Wiley into a large painting of a contemporary woman, the pain, but also the passion and power, so often captured in the history of Western religious art and portraiture.
Kehinde Wiley: I'm telling a story about a group of people who, for centuries, have been ignored and forgotten. And I'm using the language of the epic, the heroic, even the elegiac, the sort of sadness that surrounds a lot of these big monuments, to be able to make someone feel special again, to make someone feel fully formed, mourned after.
I don't know. Is it a sad show, or is there something here that says that there's a bit of growth and a bit of light in the midst of all this sadness?
Jeffrey Brown: Well, I wonder myself. What do you see? You are the creator here.
Kehinde Wiley: That's right. That's right. I guess what I'm doing is, I'm creating a provocation.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
Jeffrey Brown: Today one of the world's most celebrated artists in part for his 2018 portrait of Barack Obama, the 46-year old Wiley grew up in South Central Los Angeles, one of six children raised by his mother, Freddie Mae Wiley. He credits her and public tuition-free art programs, including one that sent him to Russia at age 12, for both encouraging his talents and allowing him to first see famed artworks of the past.
After graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute and Yale's Master of Fine Arts Program, he quickly became an art world star, known for putting ordinary Black men and women into the historical frame, often finding his models through what he calls street-casting, approaching people on the street to ask if he can paint them.
Wiley spent much of the pandemic in Senegal, where he's established a studio and arts residency program. The works in an Archaeology of Silence were mostly painted there, using local residents as models.
Kehinde Wiley: The whole point here, I suppose, is domination, that the painting dominates, that it subsumes you, it consumes you.
Jeffrey Brown: One thing he was concerned with here, heroic scale, but also the small details of a life.
Kehinde Wiley: It's about every small detail that goes into a person's day-to-day, how they adorn themselves in the morning and how they dress themselves. And this is simply slowing down and paying attention to every single detail of a life, every single crease and fold of a hand, every single hair follicle precious.
Jeffrey Brown: Again, Wiley has in mind old masters' paintings.
Kehinde Wiley: Look at old Dutch paintings and those collars and all of this. But, really, what you are looking at are powerful men who wanted to be seen powerful and got the best artists of their generation to make that happen.
I wanted to -- I want to be the best artist of my generation. I'm working my (EXPLETIVE DELETED) off to technically get there, but also to scour the world and find interesting subject matter. And I think the subject matter that most interests me is the story of people who are oftentimes ignored.
And you don't have to go far and wide to find that. All you have to do is slow down and look around you.
Jeffrey Brown: Wiley has also taken this idea into the very public realm of monuments, but his hero on horseback is a contemporary African American man wearing Nikes.
His Rumors of War was first shown in New York's Times Square, before being given a permanent home in Richmond, Virginia, near that city's famed, but controversial Confederate monuments.
Kehinde Wiley: I remember looking at some of those Confederate sculptures down in Virginia and being absolutely, number one, horrified, number two, enthralled, and, number three, inspired.
Jeffrey Brown: Inspired to do what?
Kehinde Wiley: Inspired to have my response to it, inspired to be able to hack that language of power and control, that language of domination and terror, real, sheer terror.
Jeffrey Brown: Take what you see there and?
Kehinde Wiley: Deconstruct it. Shoot it out in a different form. Shoot out in a loving form. Shoot it out in a way that says, there's got to be more than this.
Jeffrey Brown: He's created a new version of this in his current show, a huge bronze horse, but this time with a fallen Black rider. It is all part of playing with past and present, stereotypes and realities.
You referred to yourself as a trickster?
Kehinde Wiley: I think every artist is in a way. It's a type of alchemy, if it were, as though we know the received world, the one that we're handed, where Black men are seen as antisocial, a propensity towards sports, a hypersexuality.
And then we take these monstrous images and we breathe life into them. We try to create something that's actual, something that's a bit tricky, a bit magical. It's an unfortunate state of affairs in which creating a corrective lens for the world you occupy is the magic. But I think that's where we are.
Jeffrey Brown: Kehinde Wiley's exhibition An Archaeology of Silence is up through October 15.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.