Artpace, San Antonio
Through May 3
by Dan Boehl
In Roberta Smith’s New York Times review of Kehinde Wiley, the World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar at the Studio Museum in Harlem, she points out that Wiley’s conceptualism may have driven his career farther than his skills can carry him. In some ways I agree. I think part of Wiley’s success is couched in the fact that he tries to reinvent American racial stereotypes, blending the “high” tropes of “Old Master” paintings with the “low” culture of Stateside street life, making depictions of black males appealing and marketable to collectors and museum curators. Think of it as kids with tapes of radio edit NWA. Wiley’s art is safe for white people.
The World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar is now on the walls of the Artpace San Antonio showroom. For the series, Wiley set up temporary studios in Lagos and Dakar. He immersed himself in the culture of Africa, met the subjects he later painted, and got a feel for the style, music, and culture of the locals. To create the portraits, instead of copying the poses of “Old Masters” as he has done in the past, Wiley allowed his African subjects to choose poses based on public sculptures that celebrate the two African countries’ independence from colonial rule.
As with other Wiley portraits, the depictions of the African men are monumental in scale. The canvases are clean and flat. There are no visible brushstrokes or signs of the maker's hand, which may be a product of Wiley's workshop rather than a reflection of his own painting prowess. “Traditional” African designs and patterns float behind the sitters, overwhelming any individuality he might have bestowed upon them. Even their clothing, whether a traditional dashiki or a Warhol camouflage print hoody, is rendered, like everything else, mute, inconsequential by the engulfing patterns.
Race, of course, isn’t just an issue of black and white. Issues of race in Africa go far beyond Wiley’s portrayal of African-American Blackness, yet, when painting African subjects he in no way updates his central trope. Longtime colonial rule, tribal identifications, abject poverty and the intersection of tribal, Christian and Muslim beliefs are only some of the issues that inform race in Africa. For example, the clash of ethnic tribes in Southern Sudan caused the massacre of over two hundred thousand people in Darfur. Wiley seems unwilling to recognize the complexities of “blackness” in order to deal with subjects from differing countries facing different racial obstacles.
Wiley is undertaking similar projects in China and India. The World Stage: Brazil is currently on display at Roberts & Tilton Gallery in California. I imagine from there he can travel to Ukraine or Venezuela. His system is infinitely repeatable. Wiley’s trope of “Old Master” reinvention of Africa-American males once seemed poignant, even if it was shallow. His paintings expressed the nobility and integrity of African-Americans while poking fun at the Western forces that subjugated them in the first place. But in much the same manner that commercial rap and hip-hop stars allowed market forces to stagnate their music, Wiley’s growth as an artist has been trumped by his gallery sales. This may be less of an issue when he sticks to American subjects and themes. But Wiley’s subjects and immersion techniques in the World Stage: Africa, Lagos~Dakar walks the line between Orientalism and exploitation.
Dan Boehl lives in Austin, where he is working on a post-petroleum children's novel.