Friday 23 March 2012

Wiley… In the world of hip-hop portrait

 WHEN Nigerian painter Kehinde Wiley visited home in 1997, at the age of 20, little did he know that the experience would inspire a technique that would become the toast of art enthusiasts across the globe.
  Based in New York, Wiley is known in the US, Europe and the Middle East as a portraitist whose works are blends of African and western themes.
   It started with his focus on the hip-hop scene of Los Angeles, painting youths with ‘sagging’ pants. In fact, his concept he declared was to cast the hip-hop image in a classicist form.
  And since he moved to New York, Wiley’s work has been linked to what observers describe as positive change towards Black youth.
   Searching for models for his recent solo show titled, The World Stage, held at Studio Museum, Harlem, New York, earlier in the year, Wiley had to travel across the world. He recalls that the subjects painted in oil and enamel on canvas are models from cosmopolitans cities such as Lagos, Mumbai, Dakar, Rio de Janeiro and Delhi. 
Kehinde Wiley’s Kern Alexander Study-I (2011, Oil on paper 53" x 40")

   Works featured in the show include a two-person portrait, Abed Al Ashe and Chaled El Awari, Kalkidan Mashasha, Alios Itzhak, Hamza El Essawi, Mahmud Abu Razak, 2011 Oil on canvas.
   With each work appearing like a remake of the other, perhaps, emphasising Wiley’s identity then comes a shift in lke Kalkidan Mashasha (Study), 2011 portraits. It’s an oil wash on paper that subtly infuses Wiley’s art.    He likens this to contemporary descendent of a long line of great portraitists such as Reynolds, Gainsborough, Titian, Ingres.   
  Cutting out an identity from these great artists, Wiley engages the signs and visual rhetoric of heroic and grandeur urban, black men found across the globe.
   Quite striking is his technique of immersing his subjects into fabric designs, especially those from African.
  He notes that the models’ dressings are based on the notion of far-reaching Western ideals of style. However, to create a mix, he would ask them to pose in a manner found in paintings or sculptures, telling the history of their surroundings, thus, resulting in the juxtaposition of the old and new. One of such works is Kern Alexander Study I, oil on canvas 2011. The costumes, posture and ambience created through the 3D effect bring the aura of the subject to the fore.
   Conceptually, Wiley believes these works depict heroism, evoke modern style, instill unique and contemporary manner, and awaken complex issues that many have remained unvoiced.
VISITING home in 1997 was the decision of his mother, who insisted that he should meet his father.
  Earlier, his mother had enrolled him in after-school art class in the US. After his visit to the country, the ankara fabric, which he noticed was popular among the Yoruba, his father’s ethnic group, later became a prominent feature of his work.
    Stressing the importance of urban vogue in fabric, he states, “applying the visual vocabulary and conventions of glorification, history, wealth and prestige to the subject matter drawn from the urban fabric, the subjects and styles collude to force what viewers may see as a provoking and complex of imagery.”
   Little wonder Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C. honoured Wiley with Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture award.
   Some of his solo shows are: Economy of Grace, Sean Kelly Gallery, New York, NY 2011; The World Stage: Israel, Roberts & Tilton, Culver City, CA; and Selected Works, SCAD Museum of Art, Savannah, GA 2010.

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