7. Strangers to the Museum Wall: Kehinde Wiley’s Venice Exhibition Speaks of Violence and Portraiture
By Anita Shishani
Published on September 5th, 2022
I didn't know what to expect when I boarded the ferry to St. Giorgio island to see the show, An Archaeology of Silence. A friend was working at the exhibition and told me to stop by, so I did. It was Kehinde Wiley’s solo exhibition, organized by the Musée d’Orsay in Paris as a collateral event to the 59th Venice Biennale, and curated by Christophe Leribault. Of course, I googled the artist, Kehinde Wiley, beforehand and realized that I had seen his work before. It was the official U.S. presidential portrait of former President Barack Obama, which was presented in 2018 at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Wiley did a formidable job with Obama’s portrait, adding a layer of humility and humanity to the presidential figure through his body language, his steady gaze, and the forest behind him, all while maintaining his prestige, education and power. Obama’s portrait was my only impression of Wiley’s work and style, until An Archaeology of Silence.
The first surprise was the effect of the repertoire of subjects that Wiley could paint, much different to Obama’s presidential portrait. Seeing Wiley’s show made it clear to me that his real talent is in exalting ordinary people to positions of power. As part of his practice, Kehinde asks Black strangers on the street (usually in Harlem, New York), to come into his studio and pose for him, recreating their choice of a European classical painting or sculpture from Kehinde’s art books. In a video series by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Kehinde recalls that the catalyst for his style of portraiture was a mugshot profile that he found while walking around in Harlem in New York, featuring a photograph of a young Black man who seemed “incredibly young and sympathetic”, paired with details such as his address, birth date, and his offenses. For Kehinde, this piece of paper with “all of these markings–that said something about him, very specifically [of] a place and time”–this paper provided Kehinde with a snapshot of the man’s story. Seeing Kehinde’s works in-person brings this anecdote to life. The models for his paintings and sculptures were asked to come in exactly as they were, so they become immortalized in their choice of Nike or Adidas sneaker, or typical Christian cross necklaces, or headphones around their neck, and their daily updo hairstyles. These personal outfit choices by the sitters reflect a form of authentic self-expression that is clearly communicated to the outside world, whilst also revelatory of the subconscious choices that slip through their presentation to the outside world. The close attention he pays to real people, essentially strangers, is what makes his portraits so powerful.
The models for his paintings and sculptures were asked to come in exactly as they were.
For this exhibition, Wiley focused on corpses and the dead human body, through painting and bronze sculptures. Although key aspects of his style such as his extravagant and baroque use of color and the attention to the background are still present, this exhibition explored a much darker theme. This exhibition reflects directly on the injustice of police brutality in the United States. Although, in his own words, this violence is not specific to the U.S.– Wiley stated that the archeology he is “unearthing” is the “specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.”
This exhibition reflects directly on the injustice of police brutality in the United States. Although, in [the artist’s] own words, this violence is not specific to the U.S.
The first room transported me back to May 2020, the frenetic moment after the murder of George Floyd, an African American civilian, by the U.S. police, triggering Black Lives Matter marches and protests nationwide and globally. Images of police abusing, hurting, killing young Black men and women were being shared constantly and circulated on social media for what seemed like a month or two. While social media is a powerful tool to spread awareness and start social movements, to see such violence acted out on young African-Americans again and again was a kind of violence of its own. I was especially disturbed by how unprepared and unarmed the battered bodies looked–they were ordinary people, in ordinary outfits, accessories, hairstyles, going out on the street, not knowing that these would be their last ordinary choices.
Why would an artist with the goal to highlight the power of Black people depict them at what one would imagine was their least powerful moment? That leads me to the second surprise. I began my visit walking into the dark and I was immediately faced by two small bronze sculptures–corpses of young Black men. Each body represented a picture of quiet despair and stillness. Together, they seemed so small, alone, still and unnaturally frozen that to disturb them in their crypt felt disrespectful. I could not bring myself to take photos of the fallen heroes, laying in their only peace.
As I walked through the exhibition, the sculptures got larger and larger. In interviews, Wiley often discusses the significance of scale to him, and the curator, Cristophe Leribault, seems to have understood how to maximize the effect of the scale of the works through the curation of the physical space. I almost felt like I had been fooled in the first room with the smaller sculptures. There is, of course, a necessity to show pain and injustice in such a way, however, that is not the route that Wiley followed. I was shocked to see the sculptures repeated in the next room, but in almost triple the size. Suddenly, I was not disturbing the peace of two little figures, but instead walking between corpses of muscular martyrs. Their human scale size brought the full weight of their bodies to the viewer, bringing this vision closer to life. I was surprised by how present the figures felt even when it was supposed to be a depiction of corpses. The bodies did seem broken and vulnerable, but they still felt warm, as though they might start to respire at any moment. I could feel the eyes from the massive portraits hanging around the sculpture as they watched their fellow broken bodies.
I was shocked to see the sculptures repeated in the next room, but in almost triple the size.
A central question, discussed in many articles and videos about the artist’s practice, is “who deserves to be on the great museum wall?” The effect of this motivating problematic was clearer to me once I reflected on my own background and emotional response to the artworks. As a Chechen, I am familiar with the importance of preserving memories of fallen warriors when the majority of media representation around my people place them within a binary; minorities that crave and fight for their true and total freedom are sorted into one of two roles: aggressive barbarians or victim corpses. What has been erased is a sense of nobility as neither aggressors, nor victims are seen as noble. Yet, Wiley’s figures are noble when they are alive, and noble when they die, which is the most significant achievement of this exhibition in my eyes. Their deaths are not failures, and their cause is not lost.
By allowing Black bodies to take the spotlight, while they had traditionally been effaced from that ‘great museum wall’, Wiley communicates their nobility. Noble, as in they are selflessly fighting for the greater causes of freedom and justice.
Wiley’s figures are noble when they are alive, and noble when they die, which is the most significant achievement of this exhibition in my eyes.
The curation of the exhibition by Leribault complemented Wiley’s theme perfectly, by paying close attention to what Wiley was trying to achieve through the scale he worked on and understanding the language of power that he was referring to. Leribault has a long working relationship with Wiley as they originally worked together in 2016 for Wiley’s first exhibition in France (Kehinde Wiley: Lamentation), and it is apparent. Leribault was the Director of the Petit Palais in Paris at the time and he now works at the Musée d’Orsay. Wiley is as much an artist as he is a student of Art History, with references comprising largely of Western European art history, so his working relationship with Leribault makes sense as he is an art historian specializing in 19th-century European painting with a profound comprehension of the art historical context of Wiley’s work and his consideration of scale.
In the final room of the exhibition stands the terrifying apotheosis of the exhibition. I was greeted by a bronze horse’s mouth the size of my face, with a fiery glow, which grew into a monumental sculpture of a limp man lying askew on a rearing horse that towered over me, maybe three times over. In opposition to the relatively tiny sculptures in the first room, which had seemed reserved to their sad but quiet fate, this man’s energy and fury must have transferred to the horse on its hind legs, ready to crush the observer in its path. His vulnerability in his limp, shirtless body is as present as his struggle, immortalized and forever moved forward by the mare.
It sounds like a radical feat to bring power to the vulnerability of a corpse. That is, until we think of European art history teeming with glorifications and memorials to fallen heroes, martyrs and warriors.
The island of San Giorgio Maggiore is five minutes by ferry from St Mark's Basilica in Venice. The basilica’s facade includes the Horses of Saint Mark, most likely dating back to classical antiquity, around the fourth century. The bronze statues show four giant horses trotting forwards. Another example of equestrian portraiture is on the Venetian promenade, Riva degli Schiavoni, almost directly facing the Fondazione Giorgio Cini. The Victor Emmanuel II National Monument was named after King Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, who gave himself the epithet of Padre della Patria as he was the first king of unified Italy. He is shown on a horse sitting on a massive base, almost the size of the statue itself, which must be around 3 meters tall.
Wiley’s sculpture of the man on the horse and the monument of King Victor could be about the same size, but their physical placements could not be any different. A closed, dark exhibition room, illuminated only by a spotlight overhead, does not have the same effect as a promenade. Wiley takes on the tradition of equestrian portraiture, at the core of military power, and in both sculptures the horse is another reminder that the figure atop it is worth remembering and revering. However, the crucial difference is that King Victor depicts a man to be celebrated, while the unnamed hero by Wiley is being mourned. Insistence on and dedication to the memory of an innocent’s suffering represent a form of justice.
It is a tad disconcerting to see the language of domination of the oppressors used to lift up alternative heroes. This lexicon of power has been deeply ingrained within the lens with which we regard art, which is the reason for Wiley’s extremely successful practice and communication. Nevertheless, I wonder if there are new alternative depictions of power that could prove equally effective, especially as we consider a new type of historiography. Perhaps Wiley’s focus on martyrs, highlighting the relationship between power, nobility and vulnerability, is a step in that direction.
I wonder if there are new alternative depictions of power that could prove equally effective, especially as we consider a new type of historiography.
Perhaps occasional puzzlement in regards to the choice of paintings and sculptures referenced in Wiley’s works adds to the strength of the pieces as it forces viewers to think through all the possible connections within the art historical context it is placed in, and reimagine our idea of the singular historical narrative reflected in the arts, especially in the European and US academic canons. A similar idea was proposed by Ulrich Baer in an article for Hyperallergic about the destruction of certain historical monuments in the US and the commissioning of new ones. Specifically in regards to the monument Rumors of War (2019) by Wiley, which was originally placed in Times Square and then moved near Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia – where the rider now confronts the statues revering the Confederate cause – Baer states that this statue’s point is not “replacing historical figures with previously overlooked individuals in an endless cycle of one-up-manship that views history as a battle for one’s viewpoint.” Rather, “these works …transform this polemic over who owns the past into dialogue, a linear version of history into a “postcolonial constellation,” …the monuments debate is a battle not over historical truth, but over who has the power to define what’s true and what values are embodied by our symbols and our art.”
Wiley’s equestrian portraits in Times Square, Virginia or in Venice, next to monuments from centuries earlier created by colonial powers produce the exact effect that Baer described. To me, however, they all felt foreign. From personal experience, I noticed that the contemporary arts in the UAE do not carry such focus on portraiture in sculptural or monumental form. Whereas many viewers of Wiley’s works in Venice might have had a response influenced by a deep-rooted familiarity with centuries of Western art history, including a physical familiarity with monumental three-dimensional portraits in their daily lives, I did not come from the same point of view. Nevertheless, the language of power that Wiley speaks in his pieces, which includes the sturdiness and immovability of the bronze as well as having to look up at giant human figures (as Wiley places the viewer just below the sitters’ eye level) elicited a natural response, rendering me feeling tiny, and in awe.
I came across An Archaeology of Silence by chance, but it is an exhibition that has stuck with me for the ability of Kehinde Wiley and Cristophe Leribault to make me feel like I am at a wake and a rally simultaneously. The unexpected sheer scale of the artworks underlined Wiley’s theme in a visceral way, and I went from wanting to tread lightly around the smaller sculptures, to being afraid of being tread on by the horse, which is due largely to the curatorial structure. I left the exhibition wondering what would happen if Wiley’s horse and rider were moved to the Riva degli Schiavoni promenade.
I left the exhibition wondering what would happen if Wiley’s horse and rider were moved to the Riva degli Schiavoni promenade.
Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence ended July 24, 2022, at Palazzo Cini, Island of San Giorgio Maggiore.
Anita Shishani is a painter, curator and researcher, raised in Al Ain and of Chechen origin. She holds a B.A. in Art History from New York University Abu Dhabi where she specialised in Arab and Iranian modern and contemporary art. Anita is dedicated to archiving the artworks and lives of contemporary UAE-based artists through her podcast, Khosh Bosh. From the vantage point of a unique cultural crossroad, she is committed to empowering creative thinkers based in the UAE, helping them find their voice, tell their story, and strengthen their foothold in the global landscape. Anita currently works as a curator for Dirwaza Curatorial Lab. Anita recently completed the Venice Internship with the National Pavilion of the UAE for the 59th Venice Biennale.