Kehinde Wiley, a visual re-vamping of black masculinity

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Kehinde Wiley: In Search Of The Miraculous
Kehinde Wiley: In Search Of The Miraculous at Stephen Friedman Gallery

What images do you associate with black masculinity? Over the years, Kehinde Wiley’s portraits of black males have poked holes in the most popular and negative stereotypes. He painted portraits of black men standing proud, in royal postures, against flamboyant, vivid and mostly floral backdrops. He countered the images of black gangsters with that of the urban black knight on horseback. Elsewhere, one of his modern characters is proudly posing with his sword down – unlike the ultra aggressive male portrayed in the outlets of pop culture. He later evolved to include portraits of women. However, what the African American artist Kehinde Wiley is renowned for, is his magisterial depiction of black males who are more than the sum of the stereotypes playing against them.

That is most probably the reason why, to honor a longstanding tradition of presidential portraiture, Barack Obama, chose him to paint his official portrait. Incidentally, Kehinde Wiley is also the first black artist to receive the commission for the official portrait in a tradition stretching back over 200 years. No details have emerged yet but once completed, the painting will be displayed at the National Portrait Gallery.

Now, in a departure from his previous portraiture work, Kehinde Wiley is presenting his new body of work, nine large-scale paintings, at the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London. His subject remains the same: black males, this time though, they are by the seaside. Kehinde’s maritime paintings push the boundary of his artistic practice into new territories and reveal one of the inspirations behind them: Turner’s ‘Fisherman upon lee shore’.

Kehinde’s depiction of the uncertainty lying ahead of the seaman, facing a high sea in a beaten, dinghy boat, is mesmerizing. So is his incredible rendering of the black skin – of breathtaking beauty. They men and woman seem stoic, either oblivious to the danger or simply accustomed to it. If there is some inner tremor, it is verbalized in the accompanying movie ‘Narrenschiff’ (2017). The short movie investigates the mental toll the search for identity takes on black male. They are battling the sea, as much as themselves, to pull through and to fit in. There is a glimmer of hope though, as the men emerge from the sea, battered, shaken but very much alive.

It will be fascinating to see where Kehinde Wiley takes that conversation next, and what is his artistic take on Obama.

Kehinde Wiley’s “In Search of The Miraculous” is on at the Stephen Friedman Gallery until January 27th.

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