Kehinde Wiley – Three Graces Essay
Kehinde Wiley is an African American artist well known for his stained glass, paintings, gap-toothed smile, and flamboyant style. Wiley was born in 1977 and raised in Los Angeles, California. His father, of Nigerian descent, and mother separated before his birth, which led to Wiley being raised by his African American mother (Wiley 10). At the age of 11 Wiley went to an Art School where he focused mostly on self-portraits and visited Southern California museums on the weekends. In 1999, Wiley went to the San Francisco Art Institute where he practiced and excelled in painting. When he entered Yale University he began to focus more on art as a political platform for his MFA.
Recognizing the absence of black people as an adolescent museum-goer, Wiley was inspired to make African Americans the main focus for his painting and stained glass arts. Wiley stopped random African American men on the streets of Harlem, in everyday clothes, to pose for him. He would bring art history books with him and tell his models to pick any pose they wanted to mimic, meshing high culture, from European 18th and 19th century paintings, with popular culture, from baggy jeans, timberland boots, and bandannas on heads (Wiley 12). For example, his painting Napoleon Leading the Army over the Alps features just that. Spin offs of older Western masterpieces is Wiley’s forte.
Wiley became interested in broadening his search for subjects after he visited his father in Africa, which prompted him to start a series of paintings known as The World Stage. For example, The World Stage: France 1880-1960 explored African countries such as Morocco, Gabon, Tunisia, and Cameroon cultures plus the effect of French colonialism on this countries. The date of 1880-1960 signifies France’s colonial presence in Africa (Wiley 6). Most of the paintings that Wiley adapted in the World Stage used Western masterpieces from the Musee de Louvre in France (Wiley 6).
Painted for the France edition section of The World Stage series, The Three Graces re imagines Raphael’s famous, all Caucasian female, painting of The Charities as three African men. Wiley diverts more from the painting by making his models casually clothed in early twentieth-century fashions, unlike Raphael’s painting of all naked women, and made his model hold green apples instead of red. The man in the white shirt glances back at the viewer as he holds an apple in one hand and places his left hand on the gentleman to his left. The two men that flank him look straight at the viewer with their faces cocked inwardly towards the man in the middle, while they both hold green apples.
Wiley picked green apples specifically to be used by his models because green and red are complementary colors; opposite to each other on the color wheel. Wiley used green apples to show that the older version of The Three Graces and the new version are complements to each other. Both paintings show different aspects of life. Presenting one of many messages in his paintings; balance; these two paintings presents a Yin and Yang between Western culture and Black culture.
The background becomes an important piece of the painting as well. In most European masterpieces the background is a flat blank space for the main image, the people being recognized. Raphael’s Charities were as naked as the background (Wiley 12). Wiley on the other hand, integrates West African prints and patterns into the background and foreground of the models to show that every fine detail adds to and is important to the painting.
Wiley commented on his portrayal of strength and power in his portraits by saying, “Black people have always been powerful people [his] project has simply been about restoring the point of view of the viewer,” presenting Africans as royal and strong people in a way that was not allotted to them throughout history (Wiley 10). Raphael’s Charities stood for three aspects of generosity; giving, receiving, and returning of gifts. In Greek mythology they are represented as minor goddesses known for their grace, charm, and beauty. Wiley inserted three African men into the same settings to show black people as how he pictures black people as generous, prideful, celestial, and imperial.
One could conclude that Wiley’s adaptation of the Three Graces was to show ethnic pride in the face of a mostly white field of work. Wiley once made the comment that his works of arts are self-portraits (Solomon). This may seem paradoxical seeing as none of the portraits he has finished are of him, but what is him is the color. Representation makes people feel whole. Seeing someone of your color doing something extraordinary can inspire you to try to do the impossible. Eugenie Tsai, the curator of the Brooklyn Museum show, observes that “[Wiley] us[es] the power of images to remedy the historical invisibility of black men and women,” throughout history (Solomon). By bringing African American men and women to the forefront of many paintings he is showing that people of color are a force to be reckoned with. Seeing a lack of representation in Wiley’s childhood made him start the art work he produced to change the paradigm of Caucasian art history.
Critiques of his work say that his paintings are over-sexualized because he commented that he picks his models based on “[his] type [which] is rooted in [his] own sexual desire, ” even though he picks on culture reasons as well (Davis). The fact that he is a gay African American man who’s primary focus is on brown men, in some people’s opinions changes the view and the meaning behind his work. Attraction is part of the job when you work with people, Wiley does not let that get in the way of making remarkable works of arts.
Critics have also felt like his work is too formulaic (Daivis). They feel that it’s the same thing over and over again: floral background, western art masterpiece, and black people. Yet at 39, even though Wiley hasn’t lived long enough to have an evolution to his paintings critics still think he should change it up.
Overall, there will always be people that cannot be happy with the work done no matter how gorgeous and culturally eye opening his pieces are. These paintings of people he stops in everyday life just going about their business makes other black people think that they can be powerful as well. That they could be seen as regal and noble people even in street clothes. Wiley is leaving behind a legacy for young black artists to aspire to and also powerful portraits of black people.
Davis, Ben. “Kehinde Wiley’s Dilemma: How the Artist Painted Himself Into a Corner With His New Works.” Blouin Artinfo. Blouin Artinfo, 15 June 2012. Web. 17 July 2016.
Solomon, Deborah. “Kehinde Wiley Puts a Classical Spin on His Contemporary Subjects.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 31 Jan. 2015. Web. 17 July 2016.
Wiley, Kehinde. Kehinde Wiley the World Stage : France 1880-1960 = La Scène Mondiale : La France 1880-1960. Paris: Galerie Daniel Templon, 2015. Print.