In Cannes, the engaged portraits of Kehinde Wiley

A big black fellow planted in a museum, in the middle of classic paintings representing only whites. The image, taken from a short film, projected as a preamble to the Kenhinde Wiley exhibition, helps to define his approach. The pretty Malmaison Art Center, located on the Croisette in Cannes, welcomes until 1er November around thirty large canvases and stained-glass windows by this Californian painter, famous for having painted the official portrait of Barack Obama at the White House and of which this is one of the first retrospectives in Europe.

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“There are two poles in his work: urbi and orbi”, jokes Numa Hambursin, the curator of the exhibition. “A Look at the Condition of Blacks in the United States; the other on the representation of non-whites in the rest of the world ”. Whatever part of the globe explored, Wiley’s motif is similar: figures portrayed in striking hyperrealism, against a backdrop of colorful fabrics or lush branches. The poses often refer to European classicism, especially the Renaissance, but the protagonists are all black.

Poor kid from Los Angeles … graduated from Yale

This painting is that of a kid born in 1977 in a poor neighborhood of Los Angeles – of an African American and a Nigerian – whose mother enrolled in a drawing class so that he would not hang around the streets. Thirty years later, a graduate of the prestigious Yale University, Kehinde Wiley puts his stunning thoroughness and heightened sensitivity to the service of a reflection: where are blacks in the pictorial representation of the last centuries?

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so here’s Bonaparte at the Grand Mosque in Cairo. An orientalist and lyrical work of the XIXe century, signed Henry Léopold Levy, which Wiley reproduces identically by adding two young Indians in prayer in the foreground. Further on, its Three Graces, apples in hand, take up the poses in Raphael’s painting. But these are three young men, actors of the Jasmine Revolution that shook Tunisia ten years ago. Each time, the power of the composition and the dignity of the characters move.

Its stained-glass windows reinterpret classic paintings

However, Kehinde Wiley’s painting is not reduced to the sole desire to fill the lack of black models in art. “By recovering these wonderful classic paintings, he also tells us of their extreme vitality”, continues Numa Hambursin. Nothing provocative, the artist reinterprets holy scenes in his masterful stained glass windows. The Virgin Mary then becomes a young black woman; Saint Amélie, an African-American in a down jacket.

What Wiley is claiming here is as much his fascination with Christian iconography as his interest in the very codes of representation. He does not laugh, but appropriates. Its realism, political and poetic, highlights the diversity of beings, the complexity of reality: Kehinde Wiley brilliantly questions our capacity to represent them and to free ourselves from stereotypes that die hard.


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