Kehinde Wiley, Alexander I, Emperor of Russia
“This is big painting, this is dramatic painting; this is the type of painting that is about chest-beating, that is about bravado. This at once the language of history and the language of domination that inspired much of the imperialist portraiture that you’ve seen in the past. But it must I think talk about Twenty-first century life in Jamaica, and what I try to do is to tell the story that is as accurate to the reality that I see on the ground as possible.”
The present work was exhibited in Kehinde Wiley’s first solo exhibition in the UK, Kehinde Wiley. ‘The World Stage: Jamaica’ at Stephen Friedman Gallery in 2013. Cast from the beaches and dance halls, the subjects of these paintings are Jamaica’s twenty-first century men and women painted in the guise of imperial portraiture. As the artist has explained: “The work I am doing in this project is about playing with Art History, playing with images of power; finding that connection between classic European painting and Jamaica: What is its history in painting? Who are the people who have populated British portraiture? And how can you draw a line of connection between Great Britain and its former colonial power?” (K. Wiley speaking in: ‘Kehinde Wiley, 'The World Stage: Jamaica', Stephen Friedman Gallery, London, video). In preparation for this body of work, Wiley spent time in the historic museums and galleries of London, studying the stately portraiture he found there. Pointing to the colonial wealth amassed by many of these subjects, Wiley conceived his World Stage project as a means of returning to, and rounding off, the history of African diaspora and colonialism in Jamaica. Speaking of the paintings he saw in London, Wiley recounted that “Many of these portraits were done of men and women of power who had gained their wealth in the Caribbean and returned to the UK to have these works commissioned, so in a sense they can be seen as picturing a sense of completion, a state of actually going out in the world and returning. In this body of work, I wanted to round that return and have it go back to Jamaica so that that circle is completed with the men and women who populate the island in the Twenty-First Century” (Ibid.). In his portraits Wiley appropriates an art historical language forged in wealth, domination, and colonialism, to shine a light upon and celebrate the individuals who occupy these spaces today. “This is big painting, this is dramatic painting”, Wiley proclaims; “this is the type of painting that is about chest-beating, that is about bravado” (Ibid.).
Wiley chooses his subjects from the people he meets; strangers are approached through a process of ‘street casting’ whereby Wiley shares images of his works and invites individuals to participate by coming to his studio and posing for photographs. Here a collaboration between subject and artist takes place: the sitter is asked to select an Old Master portrait from Wiley’s library of art books – a choice that grants the individual a level of control over how they are represented – and they pose for photographs which are subsequently run through photoshop, edited and set against ornate and highly patterned backdrops. From these photographs, Wiley paints his subjects in oil on canvas. Set within a heavy decorative frame, each finished work carries a title that hints at the historical portrait that inspired its subject’s pose. Painted in 2013, Alexander I, Emperor of Russia depicts a young woman standing with a hand on her hip and an ennobled self-possessed expression on her face. Taking the pose of Francois Gerard’s 1814 portrait of Tsar Alexander I yet painted with a showy vibrancy that dominates the room, Wiley’s portrait is sheer spectacle in paint.
Since rising to prominence in the mid-2000s, Wiley has looked to subvert the hierarchies and conventions of classical portraiture in his paintings of contemporary African-American and African-Diasporic men and women. Addressing the absence of black people across the history of Western art, his work uses established pictorial traditions to visualise another art history that positions the black body front and centre. Big, bold and bling, these paintings grab your attention, make their presence known, and dominate the room – these works make an entrance. As art historian Krista Thompson has posited, Wiley puts forth a radical interrogation of art history that is refracted through the lens of contemporary black youth culture and the politics of representation associated with late twentieth-century hip-hop. “The notion of entrance”, explains Thompson, “not simply as a space in which to be seen but as a place in which to perform one’s appearance theatrically was popularized in part by rap stars, like Diddy (Sean John Coombs), who grab the media spotlight by descending from helicopters or ascending from luxury yachts for event entrances. Such displays from the image world of hip-hop inform how black urban youth [a]pproach and insert themselves into mainstream structures of visibility and how they use these modalities to represent and reflect on black subjectivity” (K. Thompson, ‘the Sound of Light: Reflection on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop’, The Art Bulletin, Vol. 91, No. 4, December 2009, p. 481).
As outlined by Thompson, the visual association between hip-hop, materialism and surface bling – an aspect which plays a significant role in Wiley’s practice – has its roots in the ‘surface-ism’ of sixteenth-century vanitas paintings and the pompous resplendence of seventeenth and eighteenth-century portraiture. Citing Holbein’s The Ambassadors as her prime example, such works of art openly celebrate their patrons’ wealth and power via highly worked hyper-real surfaces packed with luxurious texture and ornately rendered objects. In Alexander I, Emperor of Russia, figure and background compete for our attention. Rendered with the same level of ornamental detail, a blingy-ness redolent in the flashy colours and polished perfection of Wiley’s painted composition, are compressed together in a shallow depth of field in which the differences between figure and ground, surface decoration and the subject of portraiture, collapse into one. Linked therefore to a European history of fashioning power, wealth and prestige through images of material splendour, Wiley’s work also invokes the history of black subjugation and its own commodity value during this very same period.
Where Wiley touches upon the troubling history of the African diaspora, his works also invoke the self-determined presentation and performativity at stake in urban youth culture. Indeed, Wiley was first inspired to make these works after noticing a ‘runway element’ in the way young black men moved through their urban neighbourhoods; a kind of aggrandized and hyper-masculine swagger and performance of ‘being seen’ that bespeaks a desire to be visible and seen – a larger than life quality that utterly characterises Wiley’s portraits (Ibid., p. 495). At the same time as inserting black subjectivity within a European painterly tradition, however, Wiley’s portraits also offer a critique on contemporary modes of presentation, particularly the kind of hyper-sexualised and hyper-masculine tropes familiar to late twentieth-century hip-hop culture. Thompson explains: “Wiley, as a gay man, experienced these representations of black masculinity in hip-hop, as he did the European portraits he encountered in his childhood, as something otherworldly that he did not belong to but that intrigued him nonetheless” (Ibid., p. 494). Herein, many of Wiley’s portraits destabilise these gender constructs. In many of his portraits of young black men, poses are gleaned from historic paintings of women; a visual and conceptual strategy that dismantles and deconstructs hyper-masculine codes of gender performance. In the very same vein, but inverted no-less, the present work casts a female subject in the guise of a Russian Tsar. Ennobled and empowered, staring the viewer down with a knowing and easy confidence, this portrait subverts the language of tradition to present contemporary black female subjectivity in all her resplendent glory.