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On Kehinde Wiley and Context as an Imperative

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

The official Obama portraits. Left: Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Barack Obama. Right: Amy Sherald's portrait of Michelle Obama.

In the very first art history course that I ever took, my (now beloved) professor presented us with a syllabus and a list of terms to acquaint ourselves with our intended discipline of study. Among the many unfamiliar terms to me — iconography, formal analysis, and chiaroscuro — was the more familiar word “context.” She paused and demanded a definition of it; her emphasis was clear. No one dared speak, either stumped as to how to precisely articulate its meaning in a pithy definition or terrified at our professor’s impatience with our silence. Finally, a brave student spoke up, “In a fuller light?”

You may be seeing memes or rationales as to why you should object to the work of Kehinde Wiley, the portraitist commissioned to paint Barack Obama’s official presidential portrait. (A separate commission for the portrait of Michelle Obama was completed by artist Amy Sherald.) Admittedly, art is challenging and taste-driven; I’m not arguing that you need to jump on board with those of us who think Wiley is a riveting, modern artist. However context is important so please humor me to place this commission in a fuller light. If you have seen memes of Wiley’s portrait of a black woman holding the severed head of a white person with an accompanying caption telling you that Obama chose this artist to paint his portrait as a way to continue dividing us — and especially if you believe it — then I hope you will continue reading with an open mind. (My hope is to provide an appreciation for the artist's works and to cut through the political baloney set on using art to incite rage.) To understand this particular portrait (Judith and Holofernes, 2012) you will need to try to understand Wiley’s approach to representation.

Wiley represents black men and women in a photo-realistic manner but in environments that are highly constructed and — importantly — in poses often culled from Old Master paintings of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Part of his process entails finding real people on the streets going about their everyday lives; he'll photograph them in order to incorporate their likeness into his oil paintings. His methods fall under the category of appropriation, to a degree, of which there is a rich tradition of this tactic. The large scale of these portraits reinforces the grandiosity we are accustomed to viewing when we study the portrait of a pope or a king in the Louvre. The titling of his paintings should also be noted as he deliberately references the art historical work that he is re-imagining through his art. His work is a quotation of the art history canon while turning representation on its head as a type of Conceptual think piece. By inserting people of color (who have not wielded wealth and power through the ages) into the guises of famous portraits that we recognize of Napoleon or Charles I, we read his work not as a threat or intended violence toward so-called white identity. Rather, it serves to help us question art historical conventions, the potency of representation, and the meaning we ascribe to portraits of powerful people.

To understand why Wiley specifically chose to represent Judith as a black woman holding the severed head of an unidentifiable person, you must try to understand the contextual underpinnings of the work. Judith and Holofernes by Wiley is a quotation of a scene that has been represented prolifically throughout art history: i.e., the biblical story of Judith slaying Holofernes recounted in the Book of Judith. The heroine Judith assassinated the Assyrian general Holofernes by beheading him after he had fallen asleep drunk. This act was deemed heroic by the Israelites, as the Assyrians had taken siege of their kingdom and were generally being oppressive jerks. Similar to well-known depictions of David wielding the severed head of Goliath, Judith and Holofernes is a classical art topos represented by the likes of Titian, Rembrandt, Peter Paul Rubens, and Caravaggio (as well Artemisia Gentileschi— a female artist who finally got her due). In my opinion, Barack Obama’s commission of Kehinde Wiley as his official portraitist is both appropriate and revolutionary. The first African American president has been represented by an African American artist whose art aims to interrogate the nature of power and its relationship to our historical traditions by flipping the script on grand portraiture.

(I originally published this piece on Medium, February 12, 2018, immediately after the Obama portraits were revealed to the world.)

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