Kehinde Wiley (born 1977) is a contemporary American portrait painter known for his highly naturalistic portraits of modern-day Black people that simultaneously hark back to the work of Old Master paintings. Although a well-regarded and often-collected artist, he sprouted into the greater American consciousness when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of former President Barack Obama for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in 2018. It’s the arresting one of the former President seated casually on an antique chair, seemingly floating among colorful foliage.
The US premiere of Wiley’s new exhibit, at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, is “An Archaeology of Silence.” It’s a dramatic, creative, and solemn artistic punch in the stomach. Wiley quietly portrays, with colorful billboard-sized painted portraits and metal sculpture, the effects of brutality suffered by Black and Brown people in the United States and Africa. The galleries are dark; each piece of art is lit only by spotlights, as though viewers were in a dark, quiet church.
The startlingly beautiful show, which debuted last year at the Venice Biennale, uses the figurative language of the fallen hero as a metaphor for the silence surrounding systemic violence against Black and Brown people. “That is the archaeology I am unearthing,” Wiley states. “The specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.”
Created while Wiley was living in Dakar, Senegal, and against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the worldwide rise of Black Lives Matter, the 26 monumental works that comprise “An Archaeology of Silence” elevate the contemporary male and female portrait subjects to heroic status, in repose but full of grace, power, and resilience.
In this extraordinary exhibition, one can see Wiley’s acknowledged influence of Old Masters portrait artists — Gainsborough, Constable, Reynolds, Titian, and Ingres, among others. But he makes his art uniquely his own. Wiley places his prone figures in detailed contemporary dress and hair styles, and surrounds them with flowers, filigrees, and other symbolism and formats traditionally found in upper-class white people’s portraits. The rich, dark skin tones he uses exude power and importance equal to the European subjects of the past.
For example, in “Young Tarentine II (Ndeye Fatou Mbaye),” 2022, the graceful woman, with closed eyes, in modern torn jeans, is lying on grass, curved around a dead tree trunk in the foreground, with delicate wildflowers above her. The flowers seem to continue the act of living, despite the symbolism of the dead tree trunk.
Although the large-scale paintings are striking, Wiley’s sculptures are not only technically excellent, but their lack of color encourages the viewer to focus more singularly on the composition. “An Archaeology of Silence,” 2022, Kehinde Wiley’s 17.5-foot-tall bronze sculpture depicts a lifeless man draped over a horse, perhaps reversing the Southern US narrative of generals upright sitting proudly on their horses.
It was a distinct pleasure to have Kehinde Wiley lead the tour at the press preview of his exhibition. He is thoughtful and articulate, generous with his time, and patient in the face of the occasional odd-ball question (Does he like Little Richard?). Wiley grew up in South Central Los Angeles in a single-mother household. He earned his BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1999 and then received a scholarship to complete his MFA at Yale University School of Art in 2001. He now lives in New York.
The de Young Museum has gone to great lengths to inform attendees and make them comfortable. There are complete wall texts, an audio guide, a film, digital and printed resources, and a respite room and reflection space for those who want to take a break and think. “Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence” is a fabulous, meaningful exhibit. Don’t miss it.
By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2023 All Rights Reserved