Saturday 27 September 2014

Conceptuality according to Kehinde Wiley

By Tajudeen Sowole

Critics of repetitive themes and Nigerian artists whose confidence are being eroded by misappropriation of contemporary art have a lesson to learn from the rising profile of Nigerian-American artist, Kehinde Wiley.

Wiley, based in New York is a portraitist who has made name, in a short period, consistently pushing a medium of visual arts that most Nigerian artists would not want to publicly identify with. Wiley conceptualises portraits using subjects of his immediate environment as icons and adding fresh flavour to portrait painting as if the art world never had great portraitists in the past. His work takes the battle for conceptuality into the realm of contemporary context and appropriation.

Kehinde Wiley and his portraiture works

At 20, in 1997, Wiley, born in the U.S. visited Nigeria for the first time and got inspired by the Ankara fabric (Dutch wax) widely used in Lagos. Back in the U.S., he started developing striking technique of immersing his subjects into fabric designs that are similar to what he saw in Lagos.

And with a documentary Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace shown on PBS recently – viewed via the Internet – the artist’s creativity celebrates the value of merging natural instincts with self-expression. Wiley’s portraits of ordinary people on the streets and African-American male celebrities, over the years, have been taken to shows across the world with fantastic responses.

Basically, Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace discloses the artist’s newest works, and perhaps another period in his career. It has been shown at Sean Kelly Gallery, New York in 2012.

Wiley states: “The phrase ‘an economy of grace’ speaks directly to the ways in which we manufacture and value grace and honour the people that we choose to bestow that honour upon, and the ways in which grace is at once an ideal that we strive for and something that is considered to be a natural human right. I am painting women in order to come to terms with the depictions of gender within the context of art history. One has to broaden the conversation...This series of works attempts to reconcile the presence of black female stereotypes that surround their presence and/or absence in art history, and the notions of beauty, spectacle, and the ‘grand’ in painting.”

One of the portrait paintings by Wiley

The documentary film by Remy Martin®, and directed by award-winning filmmaker Jeff Dupre conforms the uniqueness as well as rising profile of Wiley. The artist may just bring back the past glory of celebrating portraits.

Sean Kelly Gallery notes that Wiley’s works have been shown at exhibitions “worldwide and are in the permanent collections of several museums.” Some of the his works are in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Studio Museum, Harlem, New York; Denver Art Museum; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; High Museum, Atlanta; Columbus Museum of Art; Phoenix Art Museum; Milwaukee Art Museum; and Brooklyn Museum, New York.

Shortly before the start of the last World Cup in Brazil, Wiley was among over 30 artists whose works opened as Fútbol: The Beautiful Game at Lacma, Los Angeles as part of the preparation for Brazil 2014 World Cup.

The exhibition, according to the organisers, examines football and its significance in societies around the world, noting that “as a subject, football touches on issues of nationalism and identity, globalism and mass spectacle, as well as the common human experience shared by spectators from many cultures.”  The show, which lasted till July, featured artists, both living and departed, Andy - Warhol inclusive - from around the world who work in video, photography, painting and sculpture.

After the display at the global exhibition in preparation for the Brasil 2014 World Cup, Wiley has also been listed among the honourees of the Brooklyn Museum, U.S as part of the museum’s yearly fundraising gala, which celebrates the community’s creativity.

Late last year, Wiley had his first U.K solo exhibition titled: The World Stage, at the Stephen Friedman Gallery, London. The show was the seventh in the artist’s series of focusing Black communities in Israel, Sri Lanka, Senegal, Nigeria, China and Brazil.
 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.

After a Residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, Wiley received his MFA from Yale University in 2001. 

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