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It’s been nearly a month since my first visit to Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic at the Brooklyn Museum, and I am still moved by the memory of what I saw there. With an impressive level of technical skill (the kind that doesn’t inspire the layman to paint, but instead inspires him to wonder “Why should I bother when this exists?”) Wiley subverts the familiar to create something extraordinary.
Brooklyn Museum visitors have seen the subjects of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures — black and brown men and women — on the street, on the subway, next door. And they’ve seen regal busts, triumphant depictions of soldiers on horseback, and saints memorialized in stained glass at any number of museums. But here, at the Brooklyn Museum, the combination of urban subject and Old World European style is unlike anything most of us have seen before.
Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic features works from several different series from throughout Wiley’s 14-year career. There are paintings from the long-running The World Stage series, in which subjects from Israel, Haiti, India, and other countries appear on splashy backdrops inspired by the local landscape, as well as works from the more recent An Economy of Grace, Wiley’s first series featuring women, in which subjects plucked from the streets of Harlem pose in Givenchy couture.
As I walked through the exhibition, I was struck first by the size of the portraits — many are massive — and, upon closer examination, by the deliberate changes Wiley makes from the historical pieces on which most of the works are based.
In my favorite, Femme piquée par un serpent, an African American man in a hoodie and low-slung jeans reclines and contorts so that we see both his face and the back of his body, just as the female subject of Auguste Clésinger’s 1847 sculpture of the same name does as she writhes (in the throes of death, some say) as a result of a poisonous snakebite.
On the 25 feet of canvas, Wiley has not only switched out a man for a woman, black for white, but where the eroticism in the sculpture stems from the woman’s contorted, nude form, in Wiley’s painting, it comes from the man’s exposed Hanes underwear and open eyes that challenge the viewer to return their gaze. It is these displays of powerful vulnerability, repeated throughout the exhibition, that force the viewer to consider the role of the black man not in art, but in our society at large, at a time when these considerations occupy the forefront of the collective consciousness.
Yet, the way black bodies, those of both men and women, are represented in art cannot be ignored when viewing the works of Kehinde Wiley’s New Republic. Seeing them as arranged in the museum — first as busts and stained glass “paintings,” followed by large-scale portraits, and finally a room filled with small, wooden panel portraits modeled after 15th century Hans Memling paintings — I was reminded of all of the other busts, stained glass, grandiose portraits, and 15th century wooden panels I had seen in my lifetime as a museum-going person, and especially of all of the white faces that had appeared in these lauded works of art. Observing children observing the art at the Brooklyn Museum the day I visited, I wondered how the world might be different if they — and I — had always been able to see black faces on the walls of hallowed museum halls.
As a child and Philadelphia Museum of Art member, I shared a hobby with Degas dancers, but the only faces remotely like mine and many of my family members’ and classmates’ were those of Gauguin’s exoticized natives. Today, at the Brooklyn Museum, black and brown people in their street clothes are unquestionably works of art, just as worthy of representation as their European predecessors, depicted with a technical skill no one can deny.
In Wiley’s New Republic, a black man in Timberland boots replaces Napoleon riding into battle; Wiley’s Judith is an African American woman brandishing the head of a white woman, not Holofernes; and Michael Jackson appears more regal than King Phillip II in his equestrian portrait. This is appropriation I can get behind.
Those with an extensive knowledge of art history may be best prepared to pick up on the cleverest parallels between Wiley’s works and the ones that served as their inspiration, but simply seeing these subjects as they assume the positions of “the former bosses of the Old World,” as Wiley puts it, in this time and place will have a profound impact on anyone. And like the best art — Clésinger’s controversial statue, the Masters’ depictions of Judith, the Memlins — Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic stays with you.
Monica Burton is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York. She studied journalism at New York University. Her work has appeared on NYMag and Newsweek, among others.