The majority of historical Western art can be essentialized in three words: European, aristocratic, and impactful. Art history is often painting of powerful white men (and women), dressed in lavish vestments, or anachronistic depictions of figures from a biblical context as white. But while the paintbrush of Caravaggio, the hands of Michelangelo, and the palette of Jan Vermeer remain in the plains of a paler past, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley‘s lush artistry extends into the unexplored realm of positive brown narratives. Wiley’s most intriguing works are those which take previous works of European artists and literally replace the faces within them with those of culturally prominent brown figure. The most famous example being Wiley’s reconstruction of Peter Paul Rueben’s Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II into a timely laudation of Michael Jackson in 2009. But in addition to taking mainstream achievers of brown excellence like Michael Jackson, and placing them into massively important chronicles, Wiley also takes everyday brown folks and lifts them up to the standards of white aristocracy. And that is where the significance of his masterpieces can truly be found.
In artwork, film, novels, and music there is an immense amount of intense black narratives focused on slavery and the ripples that it has created within black ontology. It would be both reckless and ignorant to propose the eradication of black pain within all media forms, but it is also circuitously oppressive to only expose a people whose existence is rooted within struggle to this same struggle and nothing else.
For black people, finding representation is already an arduous task, and for found representation to then be a constant reminder of a history that we did not ask for but instead were forced into is a slap in the face by a white hand. Why was American Girl doll’s first black doll born into slavery? Why are all of the black characters on Pretty Little Liars evil and/or murdered off of the show? Why does Monique have her Academy Award for playing an abusive mother in Precious, and why do Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Lupita N’Yongo (12 Years A Slave) have their Academy Awards for playing slaves/servants when Meryl Streep has over 10 for playing “Bitchy White Woman”? And all of these awards were won in the supporting actress category. These examples all suggest that the only way to attain black representation, or for white people to want to acknowledge black existence is only if it is either in a manner that is submissive or immoral.
Living as black is for most enough to remember that they are black – no one needs another slave or crack addiction book, song, film, toy, or painting to remind them of that.
Wiley’s artwork is a direct response to this offense towards black people as it provides a much-needed correlation between black people and general positivity. As he replaces white faces with those of brown people, Wiley also replaces the stigmatizing negativity painted over black people with glistening possibility. Wiley’s pieces like Portrait of Nick Cave (Nadezhda Polovtseva) and The Three Graces also help to redefine direct stereotypes piled upon black men by giving them a softness that is never ascribed to black men over the usual descriptions of thuggish, brooding, and malevolent. It does not seem coincidental that with these reinterpretations Wiley chose to paint black men into positions previously held by white women.
In a society where black people are consistently decided to be only type of person, Wiley’s work cracks upon the plethora of black capability and diversity. It is important to note, however, that often Wiley is placing black people into white narratives instead of creating his own truly positive black spaces. But that is a piece of the overall statement that Wiley’s work is making. So much of what surrounds society as culturally significant is a product of white erasure of black culture through the middle passage. With baroque and rococo patterns serving as the backdrop for brilliantly brown sun-kissed, black people are now placed into the subject area that white people have (and still) attempt to exterminate them from.
The next time you see a trailer for a movie like 12 Years a Slave or Diary of A Mad Black Woman, imagine what it would be like to see the words Nicole’s Birthday flash across the screen with images of happy black people simply at a birthday party. No slavery. No drug use. No furthered marginalization. Just black happiness. Living as black is for most enough to remember that they are black – no one needs another slave or crack addiction book, song, film, toy, or painting to remind them of that.