Story by Carol Canter.
Digging through “An Archaeology of Silence,” the powerful Kehinde Wiley exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, feels like an entry into sacred space. Dimly-lit galleries are the stage set from which emerge gleaming bronze sculptures and vibrant light-suffused paintings of fallen heroes, their muscular brown bodies glistening across swirling botanical backgrounds of flowers and foliage in brilliant saturated colors.
The scale of many of these paintings is monumental, harkening back to epic military paintings that create a sense of awe, power, glory. Yet the pose of most of these figures is horizontal, as they lie sprawling across the canvas in repose, recovery, prayer, or perhaps death. These 25 works of sculpture as well as painting stand as elegies and monuments, underscoring the fraught terms in which Black people are rendered visible, especially when at the hands of systemic violence.
“By inscribing Black people into known examples of Western painting and sculpture, Kehinde Wiley counters the historical erasure of people of color from the dominant cultural narratives,” said Claudia Schmuckli, Curator in Charge of Contemporary Art and Programming at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “This new body of work forgoes the rhetorical tools of empire that have informed his portraiture thus far to shift the conversation toward a recognition of suffering and resilience that is both vulnerable and strong, elegiac and ecstatic, devastating and beautiful.”
Wiley, whose portrait of former President Obama hangs in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, turns the tables on the Old Masters, whose commissioned portraits of the rich and regal he has closely studied. “Those old collections had some amazing portraits of landed gentry, aristocrats, these powdered wigs and lapdogs and pearls – all of these signifiers of power that seemed so distant,” said Wiley. “But at the same time, the technical mastery of it was so good that it drew me in.”
Using the language of classic Western European easel painting, Wiley positioned people “who look like me” within that field of power. His models — all residents, staff, and friends from his workshop in Dakar, Senegal stand in — or actually kneel or lie in — for the unknown men and women whose names and stories have become immortalized only after the trauma — often publicly witnessed — of their murder. This entire body of work was created against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd, and the worldwide rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The birth of the show starts as the world shuts down,” notes Wiley. “As we see George Floyd slain in the streets of America, I get to work. I start thinking not only about this explosive moment that triggers the whole world into thinking about Black bodies in a different way, but I start thinking about imaging of bodies slain, historically. I start digging into religious pictures of the fallen Christ.”
The exhibition contains some of the largest paintings and sculptures Wiley has created to date, as well as some of the smallest. The scale of his billboard-sized paintings, measuring as large as 25 feet wide, elevates the people depicted to heroic status, generally absent from the depictions of the recumbent or fallen figure in Western art.
At the same time, the backgrounds have been filled with decorative florals. Wiley calls it the “emptying out of all of that anxiety surrounding possession,” referring to the property of a powerful man — his land, animals, house — and filling it with the simple life-affirming act of growth.
Youth Mourning, one of Wiley’s smaller and most intimate sculptures, has an outsized impact. The sense of the tragic was heightened for me upon learning the reaction of the Reverend Wanda Johnson, whose 22 year old son Oscar Grant was the victim of a police murder, captured on multiple cell phone videos, in the early hours of New Years Day in Oakland, 2009. While we, the public, may become inured to the ceaseless number of senseless murders, when it happens in one’s home town, careful attention is paid. And when the young victim is recognized as the worker with the radiant smile in the local food market, one is shaken to the core.
But what of the mother of the victim, or all the loved ones, when others have moved on? Rev. Johnson says: “Like this Youth Mourning, many mornings, many evenings, this was me. Balling up, praying unto God. Why did it have to happen? And 13, 14 years later, that question still resonates — why did you have to pull out your gun and shoot him when it wasn’t necessary?”
Because of the triggering nature of the exhibition, the museum’s inaugural Director of Interpretation, Abram Johnson, recruited a group of seven “Interpretation Partners” to inform the show’s presentation — including advising on the language used in the exhibition guide and art descriptions. Partners include representatives of Change Cadet, Inclusion Design Group, Black Teacher Project, Life is Living Festival, and the Very Black Project, along with the Rev. Wanda Johnson, CEO of the Oscar Grant Foundation, which offers training and mental health resources to address the root cause of police violence.
The museum is providing a Respite Room offering a place to sit and reflect, as well as access a library of books from coping strategies to poetry collections. A slate of public programming around grief and mourning is offered, with interpretation interventions by community members who work in the areas of restorative justice and human rights, to inform the visitors’ experience in the exhibition.
Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence will be on view March 18–October 15, 2023, at the de Young museum in San Francisco. Details on visiting can be found here.