What do Denzel Washington and Elton John have in common? They both have works of art by Kehinde Wiley, a young, rising star on the contemporary art scene. Wiley will be at the Detroit Institute of Arts
(DIA) on Sunday, March 29 at 2 p.m. to give an illustrated talk entitled “Re-presenting the Black Male Body in Art.” The event is free with museum admission.
Wiley’s elaborate, large scale oil paintings place black men from the hip-hop generation in the postures and gestures of saints, prophets, noblemen and other male subjects featured throughout the history of Western art. In appropriating this kind of imagery, Wiley inserts contemporary black males into a painting tradition that has typically left them out. He also focuses on the black body in fine art, which has been almost nonexistent. Through his careful selection of historical paintings, he attempts to elevate the status of black males to counter negative contemporary portrayals of black masculinity itself.
Wiley, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, developed his type of powerful portraiture by merging images of contemporary young black males and their style with aspects of 18th and 19th century European portraiture he admired as a child visiting museums in California. When he came to live and work in Harlem, he wanted to create portraits that reflected what he was seeing every day. He enjoyed watching people walk on 125th Street and felt that this main Harlem thoroughfare had a runway quality to it, with people displaying their beauty and style as they went about their daily activities. He approached complete strangers to ask if he could paint their portraits.
Wiley continues to work this way, often discovering his subjects on the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn, South Central Los Angeles, and urban areas around the world. Once someone agrees to become a model, he chooses a painting from Wiley’s collection of art books, then imitates the pose of the portrait’s subject.
The DIA recently acquired the Wiley painting Officer of the Hussars, a colorful, masterly painted portrait of a young contemporary African American seated on a rearing horse, holding a saber in his right hand, and dressed in casual 21st-century garb. It is based on the 1812 painting of the same name by Theordore Gericault and is typical of the source material Wiley uses as the basis for his art.