I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum to view some of the outstanding African/African American-centered exhibits on display, in particular the Kehinde Wiley oils and sculptures that are garnering a great deal of attention from visitors and the press (NY Times).
Wiley’s oil paintings – mostly oversized portraits of young Black men and women standing or sitting before garish floral displays or African prints as well as his smaller portraits also of young Black men framed in 22K gold leaf on wood – are farcical but brilliant to view. His works are considered appropriations of widely known historical paintings, i.e., King Phillip II of Spain, originally painted by Peter Paul Rubens, but in Wiley’s version with a youthful looking Michael Jackson. Wiley has become known for his technique of inserting a Black man in place of the original white subject, as was the case of Michael Jackson in the place of King Phillip. In another painting an unknown model dressed casually stands before a vibrant red floral background, holding a magnificent sword in the same way as the original subject, a Dutch wool merchant (painted in 1625), is standing. While these overt appropriations could be construed as circus-like or commercialized, his redo of works considered “masters” are not off putting or cheap. To the contrary, in Wiley’s works there is nothing abstract or distracting about the paintings. His paintings are crisp, clean, and exact to the point of being photographic. On close examination the oils appear stroke-less. Close examination of his work shows how masterful a painter Wiley truly is. In his sculptures, one in particular called “Bound”, a bronze done in 2014, he showcases three women whose voluminous hair is intertwined. The busts are bold and stark and shockingly realistic as are his paintings. He has shown that masterful art doesn’t have to be of some 16th Century European subject but can be just as beautiful using a brother from the hood.
Another exhibit of interest to the Black community currently on display at the Museum is the Revolution! Works from the Black Arts Movement exhibit. Two featured items in this exhibit were Dindga McCannon’s Empress Akweke, an acrylic rendering of McCannon’s fellow artist Akweke Singho, who was director of the 1970s Where We At collective, an Afrocentric organization founded by McCannon and Faith Ringgold, which questioned the marginalization of black women artists. The exhibit also includes the popular artist Faith Ringgold whose acrylic on canvas self portrait is an early look at this artist’s talent and Carolyn Lawrence’s Uphold Your Men (1971), a screenprint on paper. Lawrence was a member of the Chicago-based artist collective AfriCOBRA. Her colorful abstract of an Afro’d sister with her arms crossed, standing before a backdrop of words that read: “Uphold your men; unify your families” is illustrative of the emotions of the era.
The Museum goes above and beyond to feature art of the Black and Latino community. It also features ancient Egyptian artifacts accompanied by legends that impart detailed information on ancient Egyptian and African history. Great learning is available, particularly focused on artists of color and history of African peoples. Adults and young people alike will benefit greatly from the rich artistry of artists like Wiley, Ringgold and others.