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Art as Provocation

White Sneakers (detail). Kehinde Wiley. Photo Effin Older.

Story by Jules Older. Photos by Effin Older.

It’s rare for me to urge readers to drop everything and get themselves to a single museum for a single exhibition by a single artist. But when the art is by one of the most important artists of our age …

Put it this way. If I said, “Better get to Rome — this guy Michelangelo is painting an amazing ceiling.” Or, “Book a trip to Holland — you’ll be amazed at what Rembrandt is doing.” Or, “Find your way to Arles; somebody named van Gogh may be changing art forever.” If I did that, you’d understand. And maybe book a trip.

Good news — you don’t have to fly to Italy or the Netherlands or France; one of the most important artists of our age has an exhibition in San Francisco. It changes perceptions of race, of beauty, maybe of art, itself. And it will stay in San Francisco through October 15th.

man and horse
Horse. An Archeology of Silence, 2021 Bronze Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Templon. Photo Effin Older.

The locale is Golden Gate Park. The museum is the de Young. The exhibition is An Archaeology of Silence. And the artist is Kehinde Wiley.

If the name sounds familiar, it’s likely because he was commissioned by President Obama to paint his likeness for the National Portrait Gallery. Not only was this the first presidential portrait by an African-American painter, it didn’t look like any of its predecessors. It’s informal, not stiff. It invites conversation, doesn’t embody power. And the background is a wall of flowers: flowers representing Chicago, where Obama lived; Hawaii, where he was raised, and Kenya, the home of his late father. Trevor Noah talked to Wiley about it on The Daily Show.

President Barack Obama. Kehinde Wiley. National Portrait Gallery. Photo Effin Older.

During the covid pandemic, Kehinde Wiley moved to Senegal where he commenced to produce a lifetime of art in roughly a single year. With his deep knowledge of art history, which he gained at the San Francisco Art Institute, at Yale and at the Studio Museum in Harlem, he re-imagined classical Greek, Roman and Northern European masterpieces with dark-skinned African models taking the place of ancient soldiers, emperors and saints.

Note ‘re-imagined,’ not copied. Wiley changes gender, background, context — he’s creating art, not imitating it. In one case, a Confederate general on a rearing horse has been replaced by the body of a dead Black man slung behind the saddle.

Wiley explains: “We’re looking at ways of looking, ways of seeing that are received throughout history.” In a CNN interview, he adds, “True north for me is pointing towards experiences that matter in this world. One of the greatest blessings of being an artist is to wake up every morning and be able to change the agenda.”

kneeling man
Youth Mourning 2021. Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Templon. Photo Effin Older.

While thanks to Obama, he’s best known as a portrait artist, Wiley doesn’t limit his astonishing productivity to paint. In front of several of the paintings in the exhibit, he has cast bronze statues that echo the painting’s imagery. Some are life size. Some are larger than life. In one gallery, that giant bronze horse carrying the slain Black man stands thirteen feet tall. In another gallery, a painting of a man lying supine on the ground covers an entire wall.

girl lying down
The Virgin Martyr St. Cecilia (Ndey Buri), 2022 Oil on canvas Courtesy of the Artist and Galerie Templon. Photo Effin Older.

Yet, it isn’t just their size that captures the eye. Even the biggest of these works are rendered in perfect detail. The sheen on a young woman’s shoulder. The shoes — Wiley is big on shoes — on a teen’s feet. The wild eye of that horse. You know you’re in the presence of an artist’s artist, a master of his craft … and one who is determined to bring Black souls in all their beauty and tragedy to the viewer’s eye and mind.

Kehinde Wiley makes his purpose clear: “I’m telling a story about a group of people who for centuries have been ignored and forgotten. And I’m using the language of the epic, the heroic, even the elegiac … to make someone feel special again. I’m creating a provocation.”

An Archaeology of Silence stays at the de Young until October 15. The museum — whose building is a work of art in itself — is closed on Mondays, busiest on weekends.

Jules Older is a writer, filmer, educator and stirrer.

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