Kehinde Wiley’s larger-than-life paintings insert black and brown individuals into the typically all-white history of Western portraiture. His subjects, a majority of whom are urban males, are cast in poses that assertively beckon old master paintings of European kings and emperors. Some gallantly ride horses, while others don regalia. All figures peer commandingly at the viewer in Wiley’s 14-year survey “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum.
Wiley is a New York-based artist from South Central Los Angeles. Growing up in the ’80s, he recalls his introductions to art to have been through predominantly European-centric works available in the city’s institutions of the time. Since then, Wiley has developed a practice that explores identity, gender, and sexuality through portraits of strangers he casts on streets.
Initially, the paintings’ subjects were derived from photos Wiley would take of young men walking around Harlem. He has taken this process globally in recent years through the project “The World Stage,” which comprises a large portion of this survey. Together with his camera crew, the artist traveled to certain sites of international and political relevance, such as Mumbai, Senegal, and Rio de Janeiro, to photograph the everyman – finding a connection not only based on aesthetic resemblance but also a shared expression of culture and style.
The brimming visual references are destabilizing on a historical level. Yet this very dissonance — with the imperious expressions of the subjects, who confidently defy the way the African diaspora has been traditionally represented – is what makes the viewing experience feel so of the present.