Kehinde Wiley

I’d be really interested to learn what percentage of paintings in museums are of white dudes. 50% percent possibly in more modern collections. Potentially 70% or more in traditional enclaves of Western Art. At the National Portrait Gallery’s Presidential hall it is 100%. At least until 2018, when a gentleman of color will finally join their ranks.

The Cannon of Western art might also be titled Ways to Paint White Guys Across the Ages. For most of history, Kings and Jesus enjoyed a monopoly over content. But, the dynamic duo of Kehinde Wiley and President Barack Obama are getting ready to change that. The 44th President has commissioned Wiley to paint his official post-presidency portrait. With Wiley’s style and President Obama’s legacy, the product of this partnership will be nothing short of historic. The painting won’t be unveiled until next year. Still, examining Wiley’s unique style provides many hints of what to expect.

Napoleon Crossing the Alps, Roosevelt at his desk, Charles the I at the hunt — viewers instantly recognize these pieces. But under Kehinde Wiley’s brush these familiar forms take on a new tone. Wiley subverts these classic images of grandeur and power by putting African Americans in the same pose.

Some might dismiss Wiley’s re-purposed compositions as unoriginal. But, recycling poses is itself a favorite tradition of old white guys. Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to be viewed as a new Roman emperor. So as part of his cohesive propaganda campaign his portraits and sculptures always imitated the style of the Greek and Romans. As a son of low born Corsican, he understood that appropriating these images of power strengthened his own legitimacy.

(Left: Napoleon on His Imperial Throne, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1806. Right: Ice T, Kehinde Wiley, 2005. Private collection, courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery. Copyright Kehinde Wiley).

by Gilbert Stuart
George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait), Gilbert Stuart, 1796.

Wiley’s representations of African Americans is also about political and social legitimacy. But rather than justifying one man rule over conquered Europe, Wiley aims to bring African Americans into a world that traditional excludes them. His stunning portraits illustrate the beauty, grace, and power of the African American community, asserting their place in the marble halls of art and history

For Wiley’s hotly anticipated treatment of President Obama, I can’t imagine a more exciting pose to reuse than George Washington in the famous Lansdowne portrait. I get chills just imagining the possibilities. Of course, Obama’s place in history as the first African American President stands on its own. He has no need to mimic or borrow to cement the power of his legacy. Perhaps it’ll be time to strike a new pose, one that others will copy through the ages.

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