By Carla Aaron-Lopez
WARNING: I wrote this piece in my own language. If you are not a fan of my words, then pass along and I apologize if I have interrupted your day. I come from a mind that has accepted that double consciousness is the constant intellectual state I reside in.
Having someone like me write about someone like Kehinde Wiley is loaded and risky. As in I have no problems sharing controversial concerns with any of my art colleagues. I have always been on the academic art ropes about Wiley but after seeing his Conversations with Contemporary Artists lecture in the Woodruff Arts Center’s Rich Auditorium I feel that now I can defend him as an artist.
Every time I look at his work I see myself in it. I’ve been waiting on that moment since I realized that I wanted to be an artist. I couldn’t put it into words until I became a young adult. All those trips to the museum when I was a child paid off because now I’m into fine art from the traditional to the contemporary. But if I were to tell someone that I support the early 1970s principles of the Black Panthers, then I’m labeled as pissed or angry. I’m neither of those things. I’m just a young woman down for my world, my universe.
When I look at Wiley’s portraits of young black men, it’s obvious that I get excited from the shear physical beauty of them. The portraits are so grand and overwhelming. With skin so crispy brown and smooth, muscle groups so strong and elegant that I want to walk inside the portrait and touch whichever man that attracts me. Become him. Smell him. Touch him again. Nice to know Wiley has the same reverence for black men as I do. However, as an artist, it’s great to know that he has had the same experiences I’ve had when making work to provide a discourse about race and history.
While in art school you’re fed a steady diet of Western art history old masters. I crack up laughing every time I hear that phrasing. They were masters all right. So much to the point where I have to teach myself who my masters would be right along learning about these old, European white men. Not to mention the lack of help you can receive from your professors when they just simply do not know how to help a student of color interested in issues of blackness. It’s not their fault and I don’t hold it against them at all. They just helped me become better at technically executing my works. That strongly counts as much as the concept.
(But it does reflect the rest of my American education when the Civil Rights movement is reduced to a paragraph in an elementary textbook.)
In the case of Wiley, his masters would be painters such as Titian, Rubens, Fragonard and Velasquez. Painters that made portraits of the elite appear to be exuding high amounts of power and status. Wiley wanted to see if he could find himself somewhere in this grand tradition of art history. He didn’t. What makes his work stand within that history is that he took and placed himself at the center of that history. All the various portraits of the young black men are his extension of the mighty self-portrait. Wiley definitely has a style that is identifiable and a refined, modern interpretation of the Rococo and Baroque. But where the artwork becomes intelligent is his interest in black people and public space. Where do we collide and where do we interact? All I can think of is, if I were to take a regular hood nigga off the streets and place him in the Atlanta art community, he might freak out and would stand out like a sore thumb. Hell, I freak out a little bit every time I go to an opening because I know I’m going to stick out due to language and dress. I meet this world with precaution and concern and Wiley helps artists like me figure out how to invade that space with blackness pouring everywhere. Seeping with the idea that blackness is filled with as much grandeur as the history of the Gilded Age of Europe.
With his paintings being beyond larger than life, the viewer has no choice but to interact with someone that is rarely seen in the gallery space even today. During his lecture he addressed the homo-erotic appeal of his works. He questions the idea of self-love by examining current media portrayal of black men: hard attitude, never smiling and non-embracing. He wants black men to embrace themselves as much as he does. His concern is if he were to show people how he sees himself and men like him, then maybe that will change how people interact with black people in the public space. However, something like this could be toxic for a group of individuals that have been psychologically damaged through decades of hate and apathy from their paler counterparts. He responded that it could also be healing as well. Therefore his portraits, from frame to body, will remain gilded, massive and epic until we all begin to move further past our race and power issues. It’s a responsibility that black artists have to consider and understand when making works like these. Knowing that your works are toxic and healing challenge viewers’ perception of black people in the past, present and future. Shout to him for handling how pesky it can be for a black artist to take in fucking hip-hop questions all the time. We may listen to hip-hop (maybe) but the art comes from our heart just like you.
(Not every nigga on the street is a fucking rapper. Every black person can’t rap or dance. I may have two left feet but I make it look good.)
Wiley’s work recently has been covering more principles than blackness alone. The idea of cultural globalism pops up through his newer works, The World Stage: China, Nigeria, Senegal, Brazil and India. He finds the lower totem pole in society and replaces portraits of those that have the power and status from the public art and history of those lands in his works. The ornate patterned backgrounds are representations of researched textiles native to the lands and people. He is translating his idea on a global scale by finding the hood of an international city like Lagos and appropriating them with the power figures of the land. Even across seas do the darkest of skin tones get treated like the bottom feeders of society and fairer, paler skin is equated with power, prestige and status. I don’t believe he’s going to stop with this idea until he sees people that have lived in the same position as him in the same places as him.
The idea that any artist working through black issues isn’t over. The ideologies of the Civil Rights movement, the Black Panther movement and the Black Arts movement are things that have affected and influenced us all to pursue investigating these topics that have been deleted from our education. Post-black as a term is harsh to use because even in this contemporary age we live in, we still have diasporic people searching for their history through their art. Most of it is lost due to the Atlantic slave trade and European colonialism. It cracks me up that these professors from all these art schools haven’t realized what Wiley has. I’m just looking for myself in this great, expansive and challenging history from beginning to end. Hearing about one or two black artists isn’t enough anymore. I want to know what niggas was doing in Africa the same time the Gilded Age was going down in Europe. I want to know what niggas was doing in Africa while I’m forced to learn about Roman and Greek architecture.
Think of it like this. When you have the chance to formally learn about art, one of the strongest principles you’re taught is about seeing. Seeing what is there and what isn’t there. How can I continue to set a challenge to art history if I’m constantly taught to see the idea of whiteness? I can no longer repeat a format that isn’t natural to me as artist. It’s just not the background I come from. As a result of still residing on the fringes, I will invade your space from the knowledge I’ve learned and welcome you into mine, similar to Kehinde Wiley. He wants you to embrace his space with as much compassion and concern as he has for men like him. It is time to make the unknowns known in order for the art world and even Atlanta’s art community to be on the forefront of change and experimentation. Then maybe this city whose population holds the 2nd largest group of African-Americans in the United States will start to reflect something of that nature in its art community. Michael Rooks of the High Museum is an intelligent brother. If you want more people to invest in art projects/events/communities, then maybe it’s time we start reflecting those around us or at least attracting them to large scale art events like Wiley.
Besides, I just love a man that has the idea to paint niggas real big and put them into these sterile, all white galleries, affecting the atmospheric level that comes with crusty, art loving elites. I’m so down for that as long as it’s done in an intelligent way.
Carla Aaron-Lopez is an artist living in Atlanta.