Kehinde Wiley’s New World Portraiture

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"Shake yourself free from the manikin you create out of a false interpretation of what you do and what you feel, and you'll at once see that the manikin you make yourself is nothing at all like what you really are or what you really can be!"
– Luigi Pirandello, Ciascuno a Suo Modo (Each in His Own Way) 1924

Picture this: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." This quote is often attributed to Sigmund Freud to show that even a famous psychoanalyst can freely admit that not everything has profound meaning – realism has its drawbacks. Sometimes we just want to experience something for what it is. This is the remix.

When I think of Kehinde Wiley's paintings, a couple of affiliated effects come to mind. In his work we look at history juxtaposed with a really unstable relationship to realism – our perspective is pulled through a dizzying world of references: Henri Matisse's 1947 "Jazz Collages;" Robert Campin's early "private portraits" circa 1425; El Greco's response to Titian in the 16th Century; cross-faded with a few European painters – funny stuff like Jean-Auguste-Dominique's infamous "Portrait of Napoleon I as Jupiter Enthroned, 1806," Thomas Gainsborough's "Portrait of Jonathan Buttall" (The Blue Boy) circa 1770, or Giorgio Vasari's posthumous portraits of the Medici, Frans Hals infamous portraits, and of course, Diego Velazquez.

Did I just collapse almost every boundary between painting styles of the last several centuries? Sorry, but that's the way we live now. Let's push the process further. In the 21st century, history is an aftereffect, a context with an extremely uneasy relationship to its content. But I don't want to start an essay with so many quotations from history – after all, that's what Kehinde Wiley's paintings are already doing. But the essential issue at hand here is to give some context to portraiture, hip hop visuality, sampling, collage, and quotation. I want to unpack some of the issues that Wiley engages in his work.

There are forerunners of Wiley – Aaron Douglas's portraits of African Americans rising from the industrial world of boom time America in the 1920's of Harlem, Romare Bearden's sly portrayal of the effects of a collage based culture on how he would portray his subject matter… The list goes on, but I think you get the point. Wiley's paintings create a crisis of categories – they fan the flames of a certain kind of hysteria about the role of the African American male in what has usually been a politics of aesthetics. Let's look at his way of painting as a kind of examination of the relativity of truth. Wiley's canvas surfaces are a mirror reflection of America's unceasing search for new meanings from the ruins of the Old World of Europe and Africa. In the process of reflection, the world that we see on his canvass transforms the way we think about old and new, race, masculinity, and above all, the generous soul of an artist's ability to provide a way of saying simply: another world is possible.

What happens when you apply the same sense of collage and appropriation to the Asian world? Selective ambiguity, rhetorical dissonance… Hey, it all flows back to the central issue of Wiley's work: power, money, and the ability to portray an image of dualism. When I say "dualism" it means simply that the subject matter of Wiley's work – African American males – is usually juxtaposed with radically different contexts. He creates a deep tension between context and content. Revolutions happen the same way – they pull a society apart and put it back together again. Let's take a stroll through some of China's main "Revolutionary Theme Parks":

Yanan Revolutionary Theme Park, Ethnic Minority Theme Park, Old Beijing, Banpo Matriarchal Clan Village, Public Spaces, Dream of the Red Chamber Park, Xi'an 8 Wonders of the World – with names like that, you're left with the eerie sense that Mao felt that revolutions were more for "experiencing" the changes needed than actually changing the society – after all, these parks are faint echoes of Disney, but with Marxist overtones.

Wiley's appropriation of Chinese themes furthers the same sense of duality – his paintings are icons taken from someone else's Revolution (much like Mao appropriated Stalin's version of Marxist-Leninism). The remix is global, and the World Stage paintings that Wiley has crafted out of his re-purposing of Communist China is a good way to think about the process of one culture's collision with ideology and commerce. The paintings provide a sense of what history means in the PRC's post-socialist consumer economy of 2001. The traumatic ideological struggles of the last century almost seem to have exhausted all desire to derive meaningful truths or lessons from history – in America, history is a scarce resource, and in China, history is a reflection of the traumatic experiences of the Cultural Revolution. Whether it be in historical theme parks or urban renewal, history is being reconstructed as a form of leisure edu-tainment in which questions of authenticity and accuracy have given way to an aestheticized post-modern pastiche of signs and commodification.

The uses and meaning of history have been fiercely contested in twentieth-century China. Both intellectuals and political leaders recognized the importance of using the past to define the present. May 4th intellectuals condemned China's Confucian legacy in order to promote their platform of liberal and scientific modernization. Under Mao, the past could only be viewed through a radical Marxist lens that demonized both the imperial feudal past and early twentieth-century bourgeois liberalism. Under the auspices of the Cultural Revolution, thousands of intellectuals were persecuted for failing to make their interpretations of history conform to the ever-shifting ideological winds.

In their excellent biography of Chairman Mao entitled Mao: The Unknown Story, authors Jung Chang and Jon Halliday got a great story of how Mao viewed his revolution in aesthetics:
"On one excursion to the top of a hill, Mao saw a thatched hut on fire in the distance. The inhabitants were standing outside, helpless as the flames swallowed their home. According to Mao's photographer, Mao 'turned to me with a glance and said coolly: "Good fire. It's good to burn down, good to burn down!"' The photographer was astonished. Sensing this, Mao said 'Without the fire, they will have to go on living in a thatched hut.'

"'But now it's burnt down, where are they going to live?…'

"Watching the thatched cottage turn to ashes, Mao eventually said to himself: "Um, Really clean if the earth has fallen to complete void and nothingness!" This was a line of poetry from the classic Dream of the Red Chamber. But Mao was doing more than reciting poetry. This was an echo of the attraction to destruction that he had alarmingly expressed as a young man. He continued: 'This is called: 'No destruction, no construction. '"[1]

From the moment it began to circulate in manuscript form in the 1750s, the Qing novel Dream of the Red Chamber (also known as the Story of the Stone) was recognized as a major aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. In the same way that a U.S. citizen who has never read Shakespeare will recognize the names and significance of Romeo and Juliet, the characters in Cao Xueqin's Dream of the Red Chamber have universal name recognition in contemporary China. During the most repressive years of the Cultural Revolution, this novel about a fabulously wealthy aristocratic family was saved by its sympathetic portrayal of the maids and an old peasant woman, Grannie Liu. The only approved way to read the novel until Mao's death in 1976 was through a Marxist lens.

The 1990s saw the release in China of a wildly popular television series closely based on the novel and marked a return to a purely aesthetic appreciation of the novel. Built in 1996, the "Grand Prospect Garden" theme park is more closely geared to the television series than the novel. Vendors selling trinkets and snacks are scattered throughout the large park; a sensorama film allows visitors to experience Baoyu's famous dream visit to the World of Disenchantment. The gender inversions and questioning of parental and imperial authority so important to the meaning of the Qing novel are rendered harmless in the television series and in the park. Although the novel is treasured for its brilliant use of poetry, none of these literary touches are inscribed as couplets in the park. Instead, a placard stands in each of the pavilions introducing the characters who live there and describing the architectural features. The same logic applies to Wiley's paintings as posters. Perhaps they are questions about America's own need for a cultural revolution? One can only ponder the question – the kinds of "re-valuations" that he paints of African American males are emblems of progress, and reclamation – not destruction.

Susan Sontag, in an essay entitled "Posters: Advertisement, Political Artifact, Commodity" (1970) wrote about the role that posters played in educating young Cubans after the Cuban Revolution: "the relation posters have to visual fashion is that of ‘quotation.' Thus the poster artist is usually a plagiarist (whether of himself or others), and plagiarism is one main feature of the history of poster aesthetics." [2] When you look at Wiley's material – the Chinese fascination with copying the role that posters played in the Russian Revolution, and remixing them to serve in the Chinese Cultural Revolution, comes full circle. One has to imagine that the cycle of appropriation – of taking and "re-purposing" the elements of style – flips the script one more level, and we're taken straight to the heart of what Wiley is doing with his paintings: They're a conspiracy for progress. They take you into a realm where, again and again, you're reminded that propaganda is a tool for bringing mixed messages into the public domain. The paintings are aesthetic tools that can be used to unpack so many of the clichés that we use to hold together the reality of our surroundings, and the paintings in the "World Stage" series inherit the same dynamic quality of the traditions of the 20th century's great propaganda posters. Whether the revolution was in Russia or China – or for that matter, the early posters that the Dada movement sprinkled around Zurich or Berlin – you can see the same process: to put the public space to use for tactical reasons. If you have an agenda, you play with the card's you've been dealt, but you better have a good poker face, and remain inscrutable.

That's what Wiley points out with his new series of works. "Propaganda" is a form of the classical Latin verb "propagare," which means "to propagate, to extend, to spread." The actual Latin stem propagand conveys a sense of "that which ought to be spread." Originally the term was not intended to refer to misleading information. The modern sense dates from World War I, when it evolved to the field of politics, and was not originally pejorative. So let's flip the script and think of Wiley's "World Stage" paintings as an update of a long tradition. Think of it like this: Propaganda is a type of message aimed at influencing the opinions or behavior of people. Often, instead of impartially providing information, propaganda can be deliberately misleading, using logical fallacies, which, while sometimes convincing, are not necessarily valid. Propaganda techniques include: patriotic flag-waving, glittering generalities, intentional vagueness, oversimplification of complex issues, rationalization, introducing unrelated red herring issues, using appealing, simple slogans, stereotyping, testimonials from authority figures or celebrities, unstated assumptions, and encouraging readers or viewers to "jump on the bandwagon" of a particular point of view.

Think about that when you look at Wiley's paintings. I asked him about the role "power" plays in his work, and he replied casually: "It's all a charade." The point is simply that whether you are a Renaissance nobleman, or were attached to the Communist Party in China during the revolution, your imagery has to contain the messages you want preserved and disseminated.

When Edward Bernays published his classic text "Propaganda" in 1928, it wasn't only the fact that he coined the term "public relations" that made his work an instant success. It was that he was able to translate the nuances of opinion into the halls of finance. "If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." [3] He called this scientific technique of opinion-molding the "engineering of consent."



"Propaganda is neutrally defined as a systematic form of purposeful persuasion that attempts to influence the emotions, attitudes, opinions, and actions of specified target audiences for ideological, political or commercial purposes through the controlled transmission of one-sided messages (which may or may not be factual) via mass and direct media channels. A propaganda organization employs propagandists who engage in propagandism—the applied creation and distribution of such forms of persuasion."
—R.A. Nelson, A Chronology and Glossary of Propaganda in the United States, 1996


Nobleman, saint, prophet – Wiley's subject matter places African Americans in a context that is almost Surreal because, essentially, no one has done the juxtaposition before. There are writers who look for the primitive Black – Jean Genet, for example, or photographers who look for the socially exotic, Robert Mapplethorpe. But the ideal of telling a story with recast characters – maybe Jean Cocteau's "Orpheus" might work for this one… Well, it's something that painting really hasn't engaged too much.

With one flourish, Wiley switches roles, and lets a whole different reading of portraiture arrive. His work makes us focus on the reading of new roles. It's kind of like the re-casting of a script to fit new actors by a director who is impatient with the previous directors direction: his work, like August Wilson's or Susan Lori Parks, puts African American identity in role that few people would have been able to understand 30 years ago, let alone 100. But because it goes far back into history, before the roles that we're "familiar" with now were established, it's a fresh perspective because we have no way of comparing it to things so close in the rear-view mirror. Try connecting the dots between, say, a Flemish painter during the Renaissance, and a young African man walking around Harlem or Brooklyn wearing DADA gear. Wiley's work, like Sigmund Freud's nephew, Edward Bernays, is about engineering consent.

You can think of his painting as a new kind of literacy that pushes how we read a painting to the edge of the unmapped world of Europe drew several centuries ago. When explorers reached the end of the map, the simple symbol they placed was "here be monsters." Wiley's painting takes place beyond the edge of the defined realms of European Old Master works, but it mirrors them, absorbs them – makes them his own – it is here, and it is now. It has the strength to play with history, precisely because it uses the techniques of old portraiture in a new context. That's the software angle. From Da Vinci to Michelangelo to Warhol, throughout history artists have used "crutches" such as pantographs or camera obscurae and modern projectors to enlarge, transfer, and otherwise create their art. Wiley, following other 20th century painters like James Rosenquist, Jeff Koons, and David Salle, opts into the debate about process, painting, and portraits, and ups the ante. I can imagine "Die, Nigger, Die!" author, H. Rap Brown looking at his work and saying: "This is black, baby!"

Think of the New World technique of instantiating Old Saints – any Santeria enthusiast can tell you, like Yale University's Robert Farris Thompson, that there's a hidden city in each of the icons. When you see portraits, say, of Santa Maria, you're forced to remember a couple of things: it was Columbus's ship, Santa Maria, that carried him from Spain, but it's also a beautiful cathedral, The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, whose dome was finished by the great architect Filippo Brunelleschi in Florence. There's always a layered sense of reference in this kind of quotation – but that's kind of the point. Wiley's work continues the sequence, and adds layers and nuance: he synthesizes several traditions in an elegant, and humorous, and above all, life affirming practice. For him, the "photo-realism" in his painting is an investigation into how deeply we are connected to the fractured histories of the Old World, and how they remain with us to this day. In America, memory is a scarce resource – his painting is a way of reminding us of the hidden links we share with the delicate dance of materialism that animates the American dream. It's aspirational painting – one that almost evokes a carnival mentality: it says simply: that was then, this is now. This is the remix.

Umberto Eco once said in his work "Carnival! Approaches to Semiotics," that the world is "systems of signs that we use to describe the world and tell it to one another." He aims both to expose the "messages" of political and economic power and of "the entertainment industry and the revolution industry" and to show us how to analyze and criticize them. [4] Wiley's work resonates with that theme and focuses on the boundaries of realism as exemplified by the "hyper reality" of American phenomena, like the Madonna Inn, wax museums, San Simeon, theme parks, etc. You get my drift. Real is as real does. I guess that's what Umberto Eco liked to call this kind of realism a "journey in Hyper-reality."

Real is as real does. It's been said before in essays relating to Wiley's work, but I want to expand the concept. I'll say it again:

Real is as real does. That's one of the driving phrases of hip-hop's American credo. But what happens when reality is edited, sequenced, spliced and diced, and turned inside out? These are questions Wiley asks, humorously with his show's titles: Conspicuous Fraud, Faux/Real, Passing/Posing, Rumors of War etc. etc.

You get the idea. It's a question we face every day in our world of media overload. Realism is old news, but we're left with a simple question: if the eye of the perceiver is just as important as what's perceived, we're faced with a dilemma between the material world and the immaterial processes we use to portray it. Kehinde Wiley's work looks at the social production of art – with his work, like Warhol's Factory of the early 1960's, we're presented with an artist who has inherited what digital media artist Brian Eno likes to say is "scenius" – instead of the old model of the artist cooped up in their studio (the genius gambit) alone, we're presented with an artist who functions as a kind of flaneur: he gathers people from the real world and puts them into a world of make believe.Wiley walks the "world" – which is usually, for him, inner-city African American neighborhoods wherever he's having a gallery or museum show – and invites local men to pose in the style of an appropriated work from what many usually consider to be the dominant domain of art discourse for the last several centuries in the West. Barons, artisans, Knights, Duke's… you name it, the Old World is in full effect in his work – all are renewed with a bid to transform and adapt to a kind of transference. Warhol liked to call this kind of process "From A to B, and Back Again."

"Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar." This quote is often linked to Sigmund Freud to show that even a famous psychoanalyst can admit that not everything has a profound meaning. Attribution, on the surface, can be tricky – most historians, acknowledge that there's no version of the phrase that appears in his writings. We want to think it can be attributed, but at the end of the day, realism sets us in a world where intent and action are always separate. It was probably falsely attributed after Freud's death. It sure makes a good sample, though. Let's update the formula and play with the uncertainty. Who quotes whom? And, of course, why? Cut and splice is the name of the game, and when you look at Wiley's work, that's exactly what you're seeing: a surface made of a collision between software, photography, and portraiture.

Wiley's work process starts when he drives around a neighborhood and asks his subjects – always young African American men – if he can do a portrait of them. First and foremost – it's street theatre. It's almost as if he has to convince them of the gift he's made of asking them for their likeness is almost too good to be true. It takes trust. It takes an uncanny ability to quickly size a stranger up and agree to a strange situation: after all, how many times have you been asked by someone on the street if you could pose as a Renaissance nobleman? So Wiley's process starts with a cut – someone is pulled out of their everyday context, photographed, and then by use of several software editing treatments, the final result, a photograph of a young man randomly pulled from a context Wiley has cast, is cut and pasted into a world of digital media.

The next step is to take the cut, and make it into a portrait. The next step is to make a painting out of it. By the word "cut" I mean to reference a tactic James Snead has called a black cultural insistence on repetition. Check the vibe: In a passage on musical form Snead writes: "The ‘cut' overtly insists on the repetitive nature of the music, by abruptly skipping it back to another beginning which we have already heard."

Sample: Cut, Paste, Repeat: White Screens, Black Bodies>goto>:

In "cut," then, I reiterate the repetition in difference that is both "again," or the same, and "an other" – "another beginning we have already heard."

Another Sample:

In an essay published in 1981, "On Repetition in Black Culture," Snead warns readers not to prop up the false divide that articulates white cultural forms as devoid of repetition and black cultural forms as redolent with the repetitive. He asks that we interrogate what is at stake in different cultural stances toward repetition and their relations to the issue of origin – that is, that we examine attitudes toward repetition and "originality" as those attitudes take diverse cultural forms. Flip the script, and Wiley's work confronts this issue head on: how do we describe the edge of the map?? There is no symbol for "here there be monsters" anymore – it's just us and a lot of "Others." Is it possible that panic about the ideality of origin and the fear of potential debauchery in the mimetic has more valence in white cultural approaches to repetition than in other cultural modes? If so, looking at black cultural heritage's widespread embrace of repetition as a key quality of postmodern performance may raise further questions about the drive to "legitimacy." Is Wiley's work a deconstruction of that too? Are the paintings results the isolation of white "fathers" of performance art? Painting? Theater? The question, as always, is left to the viewer to respond to. I just thought I'd pose it.

Another Sample:


In 1996, the celebrated playwright August Wilson delivered an address entitled "The Ground on Which I Stand" to the Theatre Communications Group National Conference. It went a little something like this:

"For a black actor to stand on the stage as part of a social milieu that has denied him his gods, his culture, his humanity, his mores, his ideas of himself and the world he lives in, is to be in league with a thousand nay-sayers who wish to corrupt the vigor and spirit of his heart.

"To cast us in the role of mimics is to deny us our own competence.

"Our manners, our style, our approach to language, our gestures, and our bodies are not for rent. The history of our bodies—the maimings … the lashings … the lynchings …the body that is capable of inspiring profound rage and pungent cruelty—is not for rent.

"To mount an all-black production of a Death of a Salesman or any other play conceived for white actors as an investigation of the human condition through the specifics of white culture is to deny us our humanity our own history, and the need to make our own investigations from the culture ground on which we stand as black Americans. It is an assault on our presence, our difficult but honorable history in America; it is an insult to our intelligence, our playwrights, and our many and varied contributions to the society and the world at large.

"The idea of colorblind casting is the same idea of assimilation that black Americans have been rejecting for the past 380 years. For the record, we reject it again. We reject any attempt to blot us out, to reinvent history and ignore our presence or to maim our spiritual product. We must not continue to meet on t his path. We will not deny our history, and we will not allow it to be made to be of little consequence, to be ignored or misinterpreted.

"In an effort to spare us the burden of being 'affected by an undesirable condition' and as a gesture of benevolence, many whites (like the proponents of colorblind casting) say, 'Oh, I don't see color.' We want you to see us. We are black and beautiful. We are not patrons of the linguistic environment that had us as 'unqualified, and violators of public regulations.' We are not a menace to society. We are not ashamed. We have an honorable history in the world of men. We come from a long line of honorable people with complex codes of ethnics and social discourse, people who devised myths and systems of cosmology and systems of economics. We are not ashamed, and do not need you to be ashamed for us. Nor do we need the recognition of our blackness to be couched in abstract phases like 'artist of color.' Who are you talking about? A Japanese artist? An Eskimo? A Filipino? A Mexican? A Cambodian? A Nigerian? An African American? Are we to suppose that if you put a white person on one side of the scale and the rest of humanity lumped together as nondescript 'people of color' on the other side, that it would balance out? That whites carry that much spiritual weight? We reject that. We are unique, and we are specific." [5]

Goto>crossfade: acoustic/portrait:

Name check:

Sarah Jones
Robin Kelly
Richard Powell
Angela Davis
Amiri Baraka
Zora Neale Hurston
Emmanuel Chukwudi Eze
Wangechi Mutu
David Adjaye
Saul Williams
Mos Def
Carl Hancock Rux
Julie Mehretu
Chris Ofili
Daniel Bernard Roumain
Flava Flav
James Snead
Ana Deveare Smith
Robin Rhode

And, ahem:

DJ Spooky.

The list goes on. It's a small sample of some figures I'd love to see portraits of. But then again, Wiley's work elegantly asks what happens if that symbol just happened to be you? The question, as always, is left to the viewer to respond to. I just thought I'd pose it.
At the end of the day, that's what painting does – ask questions for which there are no answers, just infinite amounts of questions drifting into the aether.





[1] Jung Chang, Jon Halliday, “Mao: The Unknown Story” p 383 Anchor Books, New York, 2005

[2] Susan Sontag, “Posters: Advertisement, Political Artifact, Commodity” (1970) in the book “The Art of Revolution: Castro’s Cuba: 1959-1970” by Doug Stermer, introductory essay by Susan Sontag. Mcgraw Hill Book Company, 1970 p xi

[3] Edward Bernays, Propaganda, 2005 ed., p. 71.

[4] Umberto Eco, "Carnival! Approaches to Semiotics," Mouton De Gruyter, October 1984

[5] (accessed May 4, 2007)


This essay was written to accompany the show "Kehinde Wiley, The World Stage: China," at the John Michael Kohler Art Center, February 11 – May 6.

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