“Sexuality and Race” The Art of Kehinde Wiley

Greetings beautiful people

Today we will take a look at the work of world renowned figurative artist, Kehinde Wiley.  I’ve written blogs in the past about his work, but this one will examine Wiley in a context, I feel is neglected from most other write ups.

Kehinde Wiley has become famous from remixing classical works into contemporary images, where black males replace the former subjects (usually a non black king, queen, etc).  The only time I think he broke from this tradition was in his exhibition “World Stage” in which he used the classic compositions of iconic art from whatever country he was visiting at the moment.

His paintings are huge, usually in excess of 10 ft in height and length; they follow the tradition of history painting (historically only paintings of this size where created to describe historical or biblical accounts).  In the art world this seems to be the thing that has attracted buyers and art enthusiast alike.  Wiley puts contemporary urban black men in positions of power and in history.  His works are grand, but they are not simple.  People love to focus on just the “race card”.

In the majority of the critiques of his work, nowhere is it discussed the blatant sexual and homoerotic overtones of Wiley’s images.  Looking at this work in books or on the internet is one thing, but in person, it’s so obvious!

A lot of art writers live on their own planet and see everything in terms art theory, historical comparison & analysis, in the tradition of other works.  Seldom have I read about someone looking at his art in terms of  contemporary pop culture (or those of you who are bigots and look down on homosexuality,  “not so popular culture).

Let’s be frank.  These men are gay!  Their poses are feminine.  They have arched eye brows and shinny lips.  These are “homothugs”, a term used to describe males, usually minorities, who adopt hip hop culture, style of dress, music etc. as a more idealized form of masculinity, to counter other stereotypes on gay culture.

Kehinde Wiley’s work is amazing!  No doubt!  Who cares if the figures are gay men?  Not me.  Well apparently Wiley does.  He makes it clear without an ounce of subtlety.

Look at his work:

Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps ”Oil on Canvas

9 ft x 9ft

2005

compared to the original

Jacques Louis-David

BonAparte Crossing the Alps

102 1/3 inches x 87 inches

1800-1802

To the naked eye this simply a reimaging of David’s image with a black man. The main difference is the main character and the decorative wall paper background.  What isn’t as obvious are the dozens of little sperm cells that float around the canvas helping to make up the decorative almost Rococo-esque background.

The frame itself  was made especially for the canvas, or was purchased from the strangest frame shop ever!  At each corner of the frame is  an egg like orb with sperm cells crawling on the them.

Directly at the top of the frame in the center is a carved human head with a hat like form on top of it in the shape of a penis.  On each side of the head are these 2 worm like carved forms that also look like…..um let’s just say they too have very phallic qualities about them.

Now am I reading too much into this?  Nope!  That guy is gay, that’s sperm, and those are definitely dicks!  I mean but hey!  Who doesn’t like the occasional dick thrown into their fine art?

So why write a blog to point out these things?  Well, because no one else did.  The art world looks at these images as extremely strong statements of race and identity.  The thing is they choose to look with limited vision.  Kehinde Wiley not only creates monumental paintings  of black men in power, but he also creates monumental paintings of gay men in power, and they are fabulous!

Until next time beautiful people

Yo brotha

Ty

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15 thoughts on ““Sexuality and Race” The Art of Kehinde Wiley

  1. darabrown says:

    WOW!!! Thanks for schoolin’ me; and opening my eyes to details previously overlooked. Not only did you reintroduce me to the amazing work of Kehinde Wiley, but you also reminded me to look deeper and enjoy the quiet nuances as much as the blaring beauty. ❤ Yo Sista is Art

    • Mr. Sawyer says:

      Here’s a question for a felloe artist. Do you agree that in contempoary fine arts we are taught to try to look so deep into things, that sometimes we ignore the surface? I didn’t notice all these details about his art, until I took a very plain look at this work….lol. and was like whoa! This is nuts.

      • darabrown says:

        Yes, I completely agree! I feel like I was trained to believe that if it’s “surface” that somehow it’s less relevant. Instead of looking at works with clear eyes and an empty mind I often find myself trying to “figure it out”…what other super dope stuff have I been missing?!?!…so crazy.

  2. José says:

    I have never seen this artist before, but I love his images! I’m going to read up on him.

    It’s interesting that you should note that the homoerotic aspects of his paintings are overlooked yet commonsense, because that was my first thought when seeing these images—dudes are gay. Then I thought that maybe it was the translation of historically effeminate, aristocratic, luxurious images into urban thug that made the men seem gay, but then I thought, “No—dudes are gay.” And then I thought maybe the sperm-infested phallic frame was a sociological critique of the hyper-masculinity and -virility that society tends to prescribe to black men, but then I thought, “No—dudes are gay.” My final thoughts were that it could be anything from a satire, a parody, post-modern deconstruction, a masterpiece, a joke—but really, it’s none of these. Dudes are gay.

    So you’re right. Dudes are gay, and nobody is talking about it. It’s so obvious—his lip gloss is poppin; his lip gloss is cool.
    That opens a whole level of hermeneutics, by the way. You should write a paper on that and get it published.

    • adrienne says:

      I echo the suggestion to get published.

    • Khonsu says:

      no those men arent gay..what hes doing is
      1showing how representations of masculinity are not ahistorical/ universal be in the the boroque rocco european periods masculinity was very flamboyant yet powerful in its symbolism.
      2they are homoerotic but that word doesnt mean homosexual it measn the viewer can interpret the piece as erotic
      3 men flank themselves with phallic/masculine symbols all the time (guns, other men, cockiness) that actually serves to make them more masculine homoerotic is the paradox of hypermasculinity
      i dont care if there “gay” but what does that mean for a painting to b gay? i think its a little reductive and theres more to talk about

      • Mr. Sawyer says:

        Greetings

        Thanks for commenting. I hope you don’t mind, but of course I have rebuttals for such an articulate and thought provoking response. I’ll respond in accordance with the points you’ve made.

        “No those men aren’t gay”…

        I disagree with 100% well maybe 99%

        ..what he’s doing is
(1)showing how representations of masculinity are not (a) historical and (b) in the the baroque rococo european periods masculinity was very flamboyant yet powerful in its symbolism.

        I admit I’m confused by the wording in this comment, but I will say that while I agree, that these representations of masculinity (hip hop generation black men) have not been represented historically, there is a long history of homosexuality represented in fine arts. See Greek and Roman art, Renaissance,(more recently) Paul Cadmus, etc
        In the Baroque, rococo, and other historic western art it was not that masculinity was very or flamboyant at all, it’s that many of the aristocrats depicted in many of the works that we know to this day where themselves flamboyant. If your a gay prince or king, you still got painted.

        
(2)they are homoerotic but that word doesn’t mean homosexual it means the viewer can interpret the piece as erotic

        I don’t know your sexual orientation from your writing, but I’m guessing man. I will say that “anyone with a gay-dar” would know the sexual orientation of the subjects in these works. I don’t think they’re that homoerotic. The paintings aren’t really sexy. They are amazing, but not sexy. Erotic suggest a sexual aspect that I’m not commenting on.
        I’m keeping it simple and talking about orientation.

        men flank themselves with phallic/masculine symbols all the time (guns, other men, cockiness) that actually serves to make them more masculine homoerotic is the paradox of hyper-masculinity

        Homoeroticism is not the paradox of hyper masculinity. Homoerotic is suggestive that there is a mutual sexual attraction between members of the same sex. Works of a homoerotic nature make reference towards some same sex act occurring.
        Hyper masculinity takes standards of masculinity and embellishes them. Ie. Instead of a little gun, you’d have a tank, a missile, etc.

        I’m not saying these three men want to get it on, I’m saying creator of the works put them in a context, where that might happen.

        
i don’t care if there “gay” but what does that mean for a painting to b gay?

        I’m not asking you to care if they are gay….. which they obviously are, and which makes them all that more amazing to me.

        i think its a little reductive and theres more to talk about

        You have your opinion, which I value, yet as I stated in the beginning of my original post, All the magazines and everyone else talks about everything, but the homosexual/homoerotic aspect of Mr. Wiley’s work.

  3. Aricka says:

    Yes to publishing. That’s three times. So you have to do it :).

    I noticed the sperm when I saw the Napoleon painting in Brooklyn. I did NOT notice the framing, but it’s hot! I think that any artist who is encouraged and sometimes forced to always look at their work and others with a critical eye as a means of interrogation and analysis, runs the risk of leaving aspects of the work out. That’s something I have to often force myself to do. Do the hard fast critical depth, and then step back and just see the work for what it’s doing. I do, however, think that black male sexuality is so taboo it has become somewhat of a non-issue for critics. And by non-issue, it’s an erasure, a forgetting that black sexual identity exists outside of the content of oversexed seductress hottentot or the vilified predatory black man. Intellectual analysis of it through art like this names it, and gives it a power and a presence that mainstream (even the mainstream in any seemingly small artistic world) choose or don’t realize they deny. (This happens way too much with black male gay poets in my world, but I could go into detail about that on MY blog (-: ).

    P.S. I think YOU’RE fabulous. Love you!

    • Mr. Sawyer says:

      Thanks Aricka

      Here’s the thing. I often wonder if they ignore these things about his work or others. These things being, black homosexuality, and putting a sub culture in a position of high society.

      Do they just not see it? Its like the book Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk. The main character was a super model who got her jaw shot off and was left disfigured. When she went out in public, everyone acted as if they couldn’t see her(not just ignore her, but really as if she wasn’t there) because she was so grotesque to them, even though she still had this beautiful body.

      When the writers, editors, gallerist, curators etc look at this work, are they completely blind to these issues? Can they only see the beauty and when blacks create any work with a slightly racial edge to it, is that the only part of the content that warrants their attention?

      I don’t have the answer, but I certainly can mention what I see in my own writing. Wiley is putting it out there, and everyone is acting his work is an Invisible Monster.

      He’s a brave soul and a dope artist.

      Love ya back

  4. Corvinus says:

    Interesting works, although my first thought of the “egg like” image was that it’s a testicle.

  5. Bochinche says:

    BRAvisimo Mr. Sawyer! PROvocative BLOG!

    When I first viewed Mr. Wiley’s work, I was TAKEn aback that NOne of what I’d read about it addressed the BLATENTly OBVIOUS.

    MAYbe its MORE interesting/topical for “critics” to talk about the BLACKness than the sexuality of the works.

    The entire social aspect of what is/not masculine is baffling. A gun?!

    Its often MIRAculous as to what gets OVERlooked in/by MAINstream society: ALL rappers having arched brows, FLAWless PAINTed skin, & pants SUGGESTively exposing their ASSests; Busta Rhymes & DOMinatrix Ms. Janet Jackson in a dress of COCK rings dancing around with MARCHing sperm; Ms. Jackson’s FeedBACK dancing in MILK.
    In some ways MAYbe its GREAT that Mr. Wiley’s work can be viewed & not JUST be JUDGEd as being homosexual/erotic.

  6. Jenna Felstead says:

    I was looking at the Napoleon one in the Bklyn Museum today, and the stupid tour guide didn’t notice any of this. I was about to ask, “why are there sperm everywhere in all these pieces” but we were already moving on. All I noticed was that the frame was a little odd looking, but I didn’t see any of that. Come to think of it, the poses are really feminine, and the patterns in the back are too. Really creative works though.

  7. Jenna Felstead says:

    Also, in a few of the more Indian-styled patterned backgrounds, the patterns themselves are made up of thousands of little sperm. So interesting. Maybe it’s hinting that although these images seem black and white masculine when you first see them, when you pay attention, there’s a lot more to them. Hell, that may link up with stereotypes in general if you think about it. More than meets the eye.

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