The eye-popping exhibition, A New Republic, showcased Feb 11th to May 8th, 2016 at the Seattle Art Museum, assembled an extensive series of life-size, oil on canvas portraits of young African-Americans, by rising American painter Kehinde Wiley (b.1977).
The colour-saturated paintings depict stylized figures staged in the familiar tradition of historical European portraiture, which frequently portrayed the aristocratic white ruling class. Here, using black models, Wiley reimagined these classical portraits for a modern age to powerfully confront entrenched conceptions of race, identity politics and status.
Each painting incorporates youthful subjects assuming a heroic, valiant pose surrounded by, and often overlapped with, an exuberant background of riotous pattern and robust colours. The palette combines an intense flurry of rich, arresting hues in thoughtfully balanced proportion surrounding the subject entirely, without overtaking it. Backgrounds brim with vibrant, tightly interwoven florals or dynamic jacquard prints extending edge to edge, filling the canvas with meticulous graphic ornamentation. This contrasts with the unremarkable, everyday modern streetwear worn by the subjects, such as hoodies, sports jerseys and jeans. With a dignified air, figures occupy the foreground and centre of the frame-- a focal point intended to elevate their stature and suggest authority.
The smooth picture surface features controlled continuous lines in graceful rhythm. This, together with a precise, symmetrical arrangement of elements and accurate representation of the sitters, recalls the baroque canon of portraiture. As historic European portraiture typically depicted minorities in positions of servitude, Wiley proposes a new paradigm with this impressive series – one of esteemed black individuals distinguished in grand formal style, to be regarded with august respect.
Wiley successfully juxtaposes contemporary urban black culture with white status and class structure, facing off against conventional beliefs of hierarchy, influence and their perceived virtues. The realistic likeness of the model, grand scale of the painting, and the formally ordered composition combine to affirm their commanding presence. In a clever twist however, Wiley doesn’t seek to mimic the past entirely; rather, he honors the present character of African American distinctiveness with timely dress, hair and props.
This captivating exhibition enthralled viewers with its exacting execution and compelling narrative. Wiley’s body of work is a significant contribution to the discourse on minority identity and image in contemporary culture.
'A New Republic' travels to Toledo, Ohio and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 2017.
Published January 2017 for The Association of Women Art Dealers (AWAD) London, UK