“I try to create a place of disorientation.”
New York-based painter Kehinde Wiley is changing the game for what Black representation in western art looks like. Using traditionally European styles of artwork, such as stained-glass windows, oil paintings and bronze sculptures, he weaves contemporary Black people into his work, juxtaposing two cultures while reimagining who indeed gets to be the muse in “classic art.” Many of Wiley’s subjects look nothing like your average museum patron, who we usually imagine as white and middle/upper class. He refers to this phenomenon as the “politics of perception.” His work changes the way blackness is portrayed in art, showing that modern Black folks are just as worthy of being portrayed in a stained glass window as they are in a street mural.
Wiley understands that art is about power, and he unapologetically inserts the power of his Black subjects into the traditional lily-white museum world. In an interview with NPR, he was asked why he uses Black people in particular when painting in a classic style. He said:
“What I wanted to do was to look at the powerlessness that I felt as — and continue to feel at times — as a black man in the American streets. I know what it feels like to walk through the streets, knowing what it is to be in this body, and how certain people respond to that body. This dissonance between the world that you know, and then what you mean as a symbol in public, that strange, uncanny feeling of having to adjust for … this double consciousness.”
This duality indeed shows up in his work and forces the viewer to question stereotypes and see glory in blackness when it is usually stigmatized. Shine on, Mr. Wiley!