"All the paintings I love are the ones where powerful men are celebrated on the walls of museums. What feels really strange is not being able to see a reflection of myself in that world" - African American artist Kehinde Wiley during an interview on CBS Sunday in 2015.
It is undeniable that African Americans have very few appearances in art history. When they were painted in works prior to the 20th century, they were often represented as slaves, for instance, the painting Slave play on Dombi Plantation by Dirk Valkenburg, or as domestic workers like in the Portrait of Marquis Lafayette by John Baptiste Paon painted in 1783.
In the 20th century, African Americans started to be represented differently. Subjects of the paintings were often depicted as victims of society, or the artwork at least denounced social injustice. For instance, Hope Imprisoned by Charles White or Jean Michel Basquiat’s 'Untitled 'Now’s the time'' testify to this statement.
However, throughout the 20th century, artists started to develop the art of cultural expression, especially after the abolition of segregation in 1954, and the black hip hop movement of the 60s. School of Beauty, School of Culture by Kerry James Marshall or Brother Rap by Gaylord Hassan are explicit representations of this new culture.
Unfortunately, today, much as in the second half of the 20th century, the African American community still feels the need to express their frustration at inequality and discrimination. As we can see on the streets, most recently with the murder of George Floyd, violent acts of racism and discrimination are still prevalent in our society.
And so, there is still a lot to protest against in the name of equality, and Black Lives Matter is one of many movements mobilising.
Protests and confederate statues
There are two main ways of protesting against this inequality. The peaceful way, with marches and slogans being held up, or the hard way, with riots and violent exchanges with the authorities and even with opposing protesters.
Another phenomenon that went viral around the world was to tear down statues of confederates or people who carried out racist acts in history, for instance: Edward Colston in Bristol, who is said to have sold 100.000 slaves between 1672 and 1689.
The reactions of people seeing these images varied. Some people thought is was high time to do so. Others thought it was an act of erasing history. Whatever the opinion, most people can agree on the fact that statues of people who have harmed minorities are out of place in town centres, especially today when the defense of racial equalities are in the spotlight.
Regarding the destruction of these statues, to have a more artistic and political approach, let’s focus on the artist Kehinde Wiley and his view on this topic.
Kehinde Wiley could be considered today as one of the most popular artists in America and around the world. He was the first black artist to create the official portrait of a US President (Barrack Obama). Now his paintings are exhibited around the world.
His passion for painting started in Los Angeles when he was just a child. He entered an art school at the age of eleven and started visiting many museums. He explains on his website that he grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the late 80s and was a witness of the defining elements of hip- hop: violence, anti-social behaviors, streets on fire and so on. This forged the man and the artist.
Kehinde Wiley uses artistic appropriation to navigate through history and question its social standards. He deliberately copies a famous painting, for instance Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David, and replaces the original sitter by an African American male.
Being African American himself, Kehinde Wiley represents his own community in his art. Two features stand out among the distinguishing characteristics of his portraits: first, the heroic poses of the young men of African descent (who represent most of his models), and secondly, the intense, evocative background designs.
Eugenie Tsai, one of the authors of Kehinde Wiley - A New Republic, gives a clear explanation of what his work consists in: "His practice is based on transforming historical portraits originally commissioned to Old Masters intended to convey the status and power of the sitter. They become monumental contemporary paintings that, by placing black subjects front and center, draw attention to their absence from canonical works of art history and from cultural narratives".
Kehinde Wiley’s Art and Protests
With an understanding of the artist's work, now we can address to the fate of monuments glorifying confederate generals and other historical figures of imperialism. They were indeed up for heated disputes in 2019 and are still today. While many historians advocate removing confederate statues, others warn that it could mean censoring history itself. Conservatives and a number of liberals alike caution against the removal of these markers, invoking historical erasure.
In this debate Kehinde Wiley chose to express his opinion with art. Instead of adding plaques or choosing between preservation and destruction, Kehinde Wiley made a sculpture, commissioned by the Virginia Museum of Fine Art. This shifted the terms of the debate to: not whether monuments should stay or go, but how to create alternatives that question whom and what history people honor, and why. Kehinde Wiley’s eight ton sculpture of an African-American man on horseback had been placed for several months at America’s busiest intersection, Times Square. Offering a new vision rather than elevating or removing historical figures. His artwork imagines our present, and our past, differently and invites us to reflect.
When Kehinde Wiley was asked by a journalist on NBC News in October 2019 if he thinks the confederate monuments should be taken down and, if he did, as an artist, did it put him in a strange position, he answered: "I’ve never personally asked for any art to be taken down. I actually believe that all art should be seen within its own social context. There must be a museum for all of the terrible ideas that existed in the world. The only thing that battles a bad idea is a better idea".
With Trevor Noah, on The Daily Show, Kehinde Wiley goes into a little bit more detail concerning that subject and states: "These sculptures were designed to remind African Americans of their place in society and they are still in major parts of the South". He continues by saying that when he went on a trip to Richmond he saw one of these sculptures. He said: "You know what? This is a language that’s powerful and it’s one that I want to be able to use to inhabit it, to haunt it. So I decide to find several African American men, merge all of their features, create this kind of everyman on a horse and recreated those monuments for the 21st century to create a new way of saying, ‘Yes,’ to people who happen to look like me".
With these two statements concerning the confederate monuments, we can caption a little bit more the essence of Kehinde Wiley’s art and his spirit around it. Kehinde Wiley is an artist who does not want to criticise what had been done in the past, no matter how terrible it might have been, he wants to change the way people look at the statues by re-contextualizing and redefining the art with artistic appropriation.
He once said on NBC News that he considers himself as a history artist: "what I deal with is history. I deal with Europe and America, colonialism and empire and I try to find new ways of digesting these contents, trying to find new ways of looking at ourselves afresh. It's about the co-evolution of societies and culture and what you're looking at is us. In full measure."
Therefore, he does not so much want his art to be seen as too political nor does he want to be seen as an activist, even though he may be viewed as such.
Kehinde Wiley chooses to reinvent art history and so he uses artistic appropriation as a means of travel in the past and represents a community that did not have the opportunity, whatever the reason may have been, to be part of art history that the world can see today.
This article was not written to provide the reader with an answer to the controversial topic of statues being torn down. Each individual should come to their own conclusion.
However, what this piece has hopefully done is to provide some artistic context to history and politics. These three domains can be linked to one another and influence our understanding, helping us analyse current events in a more considered way.