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Paper #2 Revision Jason Brown Professor Klich December 11, 2013

Over the past ten years, the content of African-American art has changed from its traditional roots, thanks to a few key artists looking to reshape the subgenre. The evolution of contemporary black art can be found in its content, as contemporary black artists now focus on changing societys perception of who an AfricanAmerican is. Studio Museum of Harlem director Thelma Golden calls the movement Post-Black art, explaining that it is "characterized by artists who were adamant about "not" being labeled as "black" artists, though their work was steeped, in fact deeply interested, in redefining complex notions of blackness.1 Rather than identifying themselves as black artists, who make pieces reflecting their traditional heritage, Post-Black artists focus on investigating what traditional black art is and challenging it. For example, many pieces of traditional black art focus on a part of widely accepted African-American food, while a piece of Post-Black art might show an alternative, or portray it in a different way. Post-Black art might also use styles not generally used in the African-American community, which is a hallmark of New York-based portrait painter Kehinde Wiley. By mixing elements of Baroque and Thelma Golden, Freestyle Catalog. (New York: Studio Museum in Harlem, 2001), p. 14.

Renaissance European portraits, abstract patterns from the same time period, and contemporary black figures, Kehinde investigates both portraiture of the Western World and traditional notions of black masculinity.

Born in 1977 in Los Angeles, Wiley had extensive training and preparation to become a contemporary painter. He earned a BFA from the San Francisco Institute of Art, and an MFA from Yale University both in Studio Art. 2 He started his career taking portrait photos of random men he saw in urban neighborhoods and painting them, but soon moved on to painting sports icons, celebrities, and other prominent figures of various cultures. Superimposing these men he would photograph onto the backgrounds of famous European portraits, he quickly gained recognition and became a world famous artist. His work can be found today in places such as the Brooklyn Museum, the Detroit Institute of Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Columbus Museum of Art. 3 In 2005, the VH1 Hip Hop Honors Awards commissioned Wiley to paint his distinct portraits for all Hip-Hop Honorees, and in 2010 Puma commissioned him to paint portraits of various sports icons.4

One of Wileys main goals has been to give African-American men the same position of power that European men have had the privilege to enjoy throughout history. As he explained in his artists statement for Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps (2005), his rendition of the similarly titled Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1800) by Wyatt Mason, How Kehinde Wiley Makes a Masterpiece. (GQ, 2013), p. 1 Sean Kelly, KEHINDE WILEY: Biography. (Sean Kelly, 2013), p. 1, 3, & 4 4 Ibid, 1.
2 3

Jacques-Louis David, Painting is about the world that we live in. Black men live in the world. My choice is to include them. This is my way of saying yes to us.5 He has done so by painting them in Renaissance and Baroque portrait style, explaining that Western European painting is the history of Western European painting is the history of Western European white men in positions of dominance.6 Many contemporary artists neglect this traditional method of portraiture, which glorifies the subject by having them pose proudly on a well-lit stage, but there were actually many more intentions of that time periods artists than just to display wealth.

As Jean Sorabella explains in Portraiture in renaissance and Baroque Europe, Sometimes the sitters beauty or demeanor is emphasized in other examples, a magnificent costume highlights the sitters wealth and fashionable other portraits suggest a sitters profession or interests by including possessions and attributes that characterize him.7 Renaissance and Baroque portraits were not only limited to portraying the wealth and affluence of the subject, but also other aspects of their personality. Today, historians are able to determine a subjects social status, occupation, and even personality based on his portraits. For example, artist Joseph Ducreuxs 1793 Portrait de lartiste sous les traits dun moqueur shows him laughing and pointing at the viewer in an unconventional pose, to portray his own personality. Historically, however, many men of power in Western Europe have Kehinde Wiley, Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. (Brooklyn Museum, 2005). p. 1 6 Sarah Lewis, De(i)fying the Masters, (Art in America, April 2005). p. 123 7 Jean Sorabella, Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Europe, (Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History / The Metropolitan Museum of Art).

used Baroque and Renaissance style portraits to illustrate their dominance. One of Wileys portrait strategies has been to do the same but with African-American men instead. One method Wiley presents African American men in positions of dominance is by placing contemporary black icons in the position of famous people. He has done renditions of several Kings and Queens of Europes portraits, and even some from Greco-Roman times, which is where Baroque and Renaissance painters drew their inspiration.8 One of the most famous examples can be found in Ice T, a portrait of rapper Ice-T assuming the position of Napoleon I in the famous Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne, a painting by J.A.D Ingres from 1806.9

Fig 2. Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne J.A.D Ingres, 1806 Oil on Canvas 259cm x 162 cm

Fig I. Ice T Kehinde Wiley, 2005 Oil on canvas 243.8 x 182.9 cm

Ice T is one of Wileys most famous portraits, and for good reason. It is hosted at the Rhona Hoffman Gallery in Chicago, and it is one of his best examples of a replicated

8 9

Ibid. Figs 1 & 2. 4

Baroque Style portrait. Placing Ice-T in the same pose as the French King Napoleon, it features the same detailed level of shading and lighting, and almost the same level of intricate design. Like in the original painting with Napoleons fair skin, the lighting now accents his sitters dark skin to create the glowing effect of an aura, and he holds the same regal cape and scepter of Napoleon as well. To establish and maintain Ice-Ts African-American identity, however, Wiley does not change his sitters clothes. Rather, Wiley leaves the urban streetwear, sneakers, andrugged facial expression, symbolizing his gangsta-rap background.

By doing all of this, Wiley seems to give his sitter the same regal presentation enjoyed by King Napoleon of France. That is not the only thing he does, however. By putting his him in the most grungy hood rapper attire possible and then placing him in one of the most famous and ornate paintings of emperors in history, he makes the statement that this is what strong black men look like. The traditional strong black man, Kehinde expresses, looks like Ice-T. In spite of that, Kehinde does not actually believe that this is what a masculine male is, and makes this known in other portraits. By adding hints of femininity to his more original portraits, he also challenges the strict codes of masculinity held in the black community, which Steve Estes suggests is due to the constant suppression of black men during slavery in America. 10 This subversive approach can be found in a few of his most notable paintings, one being a portrait from his Puma collection where he adds floral


Fig 3 5

patterns to the background of the painting and gives the subject a softer appearance.10

Fig 3 Untitled Puma Advertisement Kehinde Wiley, 2010 Oil on canvas

Although this portrait does draw some inspiration from Baroque portraiture, as it lights the sitter and accentuates his physical features, it almost seems to defy it as well. The portrait not only features pink and light-green flowers scattered in the back and foreground, but also presents this athlete as young, and almost feminine. His clothes are tight fitting; he has an earring in one ear, a bandana on his wrist, and a clean-shaven face. The many rosy colors in the portrait create a pretty soft image, which not only goes against the accepted idea of masculine dominance, but also the idea of traditional black masculinity. As shown in Ice T, the traditionally masculine black male wears dark clothes, and does not allow many bright soft colors to come near him. The traditional male also does not accessorize, which this sitter does a lot. Wileys portrait here does present the sitters individuality, but it is different from the hyper-masculine portraits he has done before. Wiley, being a gay African-

American male 11 likely had to deal with the stigma associated with homosexuality and rigid codes of masculinity in black culture, and created this image to redefine the complex notions of blackness mentioned by Thelma Golden; these complex notions being what a black person looks like and how they behave.

Wiley has also done a few group portraits, which have tended to stray a little more from the original Baroque and Renaissance styles, but keep some of the elements. The traditional framing found in his single portraits is usually missing in his group portraits, but often feature the same repurposing of famous paintings. In his 2005 painting Three Graces,12 for example, he takes the famous 1505 painting The Three Graces by Raphael and replaces them with three sports athletes.

Fig. 4 Three Graces Kehinde Wiley, 2005 Oil and enamel on canvas 182.9 x 423.8 cm (72 x 96 in)

Fig 5 The Three Graces, 1505 Oil on Panel 17.1 cm 17.1 cm (6.7 in 6.7 in)

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Wyatt Mason, How Kehinde Wiley Makes a Masterpiece. (GQ, 2013), p. 1 Fig 4. 7

There are many differences between the two paintings, the most obvious being that Wileys sitters are clothed men. The background of the original painting is also very different, as Wiley chose to paint a detailed floral background that weaves in and out of the sitters, rather than an outdoor wetland. Like Ice-T, his Puma advertisement, and Raphaels original painting, he neglected to provide an artists statement, leaving it to the viewer to determine the idea behind the painting. It features basketball center Kevin Garnett, a man known for being very aggressive and belligerent, and two baseball players whose identities are unknown. They are posed with the apples of the original Three Graces, staring into the distance with the same facial expressions. The fact that the only similarities Wiley left from the original painting are the pose of the sitters and the apples suggests that these are the elements to pay most attention to.

Raphael, the artist behind the original painting, had drawn inspiration for The Three Graces from the Graces of Greek Mythology, but as he did not include an artists statement, it is unclear which of the many Graces he was referring to. Wiley, however, probably was not looking to explore the symbolism of Greek Graces in his rendition. The more complex part of his adaptation come from the posing and the apples, which could be interpreted in a number of ways. The close positioning of the men, emulating the original painting is potentially a strategy of Wiley to challenge African-American masculinity, which has historically been both conservative and homophobic. Garnett in particular has made homophobic comments in the NBA, so Wiley could have been looking to challenge Garnett himself. The apples in Raphaels

The Three Graces have also been suggested as representing the actions of giving, receiving, and returning, and Wileys use of the apples could have done the same. While Wileys apples might not have overtly represented actions of giving, they may represent community and togetherness; a forgotten value in an increasingly individual African-American society.

The patterns Wiley uses in the background of his paintings, which at first seem to only be stylistic choices also play a role in his paintings as well. The patterns of Ice-T are strictly drawn from Napoleon I, but the floral and Islamic patterns of the Puma advertisement and Three Graces are much more important. The flowers decorating the background of the Puma advertisement are originals of Wiley, and contribute to his challenging of traditional masculinity. As Steve Estes mentions in I Am a Man! Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement, the strict codes of masculinity developed in the black community come from the figurative castration of black men in slavery.13 As a result, the leaders of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements of the 1960s worked to create images of hyper-masculinity in black people, which helped empower the people, but also create strict rules that are still felt today. Wileys juxtaposition of a glorified male in the Puma advertisement with a liberal approach to designing him. The Islamic patterns in the background are certainly more representative of Wileys style, as he would likely neglect painting the drab marsh wetland that the original sitters of The Three Graces are painted in front of. All of his paintings feature loud, bright colors, and his Three Graces is no different. Steve Estes, I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005), p.158

Another reason for including these patterns was likely to reference Islamic art, which is much closer in to his ethnic background than the designs of traditional Western Europe.

Although Wileys work is confined to portraiture, his collection has proven to be more diverse than more versatile artists entire collections. In some paintings, like Ice T, he follows the older style of Renaissance and Baroque quite closely, only investigating the place of African-Americans in Western Portraits. In others, however, he goes deeper by challenging the notions of masculinity accepted by the black community. By using Western European portraiture to depict his black sitters, he challenges the notion that only white men can the power of regality. By fusing masculine and feminine styles, he questions African-American art, criticizing the strict codes of masculinity in the black community and redefining what a black man is like.


WORKS CITED Brooklyn Museum: Contemporary Art: Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps. 2013. Accessed November 12. on_Leading_the_Army_over_the_Alps. Estes, Steve. 2005. I Am a Man!: Race, Manhood, and the Civil Rights Movement. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Mason, Wyatt. How Kehinde Wiley Makes A Masterpiece. 2013. GQ. Accessed November 11. Kelly, Sean. KEHINDE WILEY: Biography. 2013. Accessed October 30. Murray, Dereck Conrad. 2007. Kehinde Wiley: Splendid Bodies. Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art 2007 (21) (September 21): 90101. doi:10.1215/10757163-21-1-90. Sorabella, Jean. 2013. Portraiture in Renaissance and Baroque Europe Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Text. Accessed December 4.