Mr. Wiley Comes to Ferguson: Renowned Portrait Artist Casts Black St. Louis in a Necessary and Powerful Light
Approaching galleries 249 and 250 in the Saint Louis Art Museum’s East Wing, one feels at once dwarfed by the scale of the paintings on view and anointed by their radiance. In one spanning more than 12 feet, three women sit contemplatively amidst a dreamscape of fuchsia and electric-green florals. In another, a bearded ponderer gazes down from a goldenrod panoply of petal and vine. From each of the 15 figures depicted, an aura of calm authority practically vibrates from the wall. “I matter,” each face seems to declare. “You cannot ignore me.”
Such is but one message resonating in “Kehinde Wiley: St. Louis,” on view at SLAM till Feb. 10. Perhaps best known for his Presidential Portrait of Barack Obama, Wiley has for the past 20 years cultivated a style as disruptive as it is luminous, as bold as it is introspective. Posing Black individuals within the grandeur of European and American tradition, the artist calls attention to the dearth of African-American representation in the Western canon, exposing tensions between racial identity and institutional power.
For the 11 oil paintings created specifically for the Saint Louis Art Museum, Wiley consciously focused on individuals living in Ferguson, Missouri, and other North St. Louis neighborhoods—not incidentally, the site of the largest uprising of African-Americans in the city’s modern history. “There’s something to be said here about the specter of Black bodies in the streets of Ferguson, Black bodies on the walls of museums,” he reflected in the galleries, explaining the catalyst for the project. “The corporeal truth is something that I wanted to get at, and I think what you’re seeing here is a great example of that.”
We spoke with Wiley during his visit to St. Louis in the fall.
You’re from South Central LA, and you originally found your portrait subjects in Harlem. How did the process of finding individuals compare in North City and North County? What struck you about the men and women in these St. Louis communities?
It’s a great question. Ultimately when street casting and scouting, you’ll find that the city often reveals the contours of the project. I’m from Los Angeles, where people constantly in their cars. There’s a way of flirting publicly while driving—at the intersection. There’s a way of flirting while walking the streets of Harlem in a packed pedestrian environment. There’s a way of peacocking and communicating status. All of this is a fascinating way to look at street life.
Here in St. Louis—in Ferguson as well—it’s a bit of a mix. There are walkable communities, but also large expanses. We would go to places where people tend to naturally congregate—shopping centers and barber shops. We went to the housing development where Mike Brown’s body was found. Ultimately we have a reflection of the community, a reflection of the museum itself and its collection and, strangely, a portrait of the dissonance between those two. The complexity of the show has to do with an inside/outside opportunity for opening. What I wanted to do is create a sense of life and living and vibrancy, a slight nod towards a type of elegy. But it’s also not fixing anything. These pictures are a reflection of their time. In that sense, they give us a kind of portraiture that goes beyond the individual. They aren’t portraits in the classic sense that tell the story of who one person is. They’re really a reflection of the anxieties of a society in this particular moment.
Some of the portraits are titled after the originals, while others feature the names of the subjects depicted. How did you go about deciding how to title them?
Well, some of the originals had really compelling names. Some of them are really great originating titles. There was no desire to subsume someone’s identity with these older titles. Rather I had the desire to point to process. I want people to understand that these are quotidian moments rather than individual portraits. Identity becomes a really important part of it. There’s a type of inconsistency with regards to naming.
Yes, you’ll see “An Italian Nobleman” title right next to another title with the subject’s actual name. They’re in dialogue with each other.
Precisely. It’s also a dialogue about being seen and visibility. The act of that reinforces that question surrounding the sense of scale and epic presence, that statement, “I refuse to be ignored.”
How did you decide on the visual motifs appearing in the background—the tapestry patterns?
In the past, my work would use—let’s say if there were a pose from the late French rococo, the decorative component would also be rococo. In these particular works, because there’s such a chasm between various time periods, I wanted to create a kind of unity between all of them. There’s a lot of nods towards William Morris—a very Victorian sensibility.
And the vibrancy of colors also unites them.
Right. And a lot of those colors would have never been used in their original historical context. But I think it’s really fun to play off the dress code and some of the colors the models were wearing.
Yes—in the nail polish, or jewelry. Those colors are picked up in the decorative element.
That’s something that’s really fascinating about looking at an old [Anthony] Van Dyck or Frans Hals. You get a peek into what life was like—what small little details or accouterments were being worn during that time period. It was really important to have a type of fidelity to detail here. Far too rarely do we see urban Black America depicted in its actuality.
The way you paint black and brown skin seems to glow from within—it seems a corrective to a century of photographic film made to only capture whiteness. How do you go about making it seem like the light source is coming from within rather than from some other source?
Ultimately, all painting is the act of depicting the light as it bounces off the object. There’s the tradition in religious painting to see light running beautifully across skin as in direct relationship to divinity. We code for the divine with light. Richard Dyer writes quite a bit about how, in religious paintings—specifically Venetian frescos a la Tiepolo—one’s disappearing into light becomes the ultimate goal of realizing apotheosis. What I’m doing is recreating by artificial means religious light. There’s a number of gels and positioning of different bulbs, but in the end you get that “Kehinde Wiley Glow.” I jokingly refer to it as the “Oprah set.” [Laughs.]
You mentioned how difficult it was to select which subjects were going to be painted. Do you have a favorite?
There’re some favorites, and so the temptation was to paint some people more. There was one model appearing in two paintings, and I thought that wasn’t fair. But like anything, there’s a strange relationship with people you don’t know, who you met for a brief moment, but then you spend the next entire year with them. There’s something kind of perverse about the entire enterprise—the fact that it’s a moment of chance labored over obsessively. I think that speaks to the ridiculous nature of power itself. One percent decadence of high-priced luxury goods for wealthy consumers—all of those trappings and status anxiety that surround contemporary art have to be put into proper context when thinking about this.
With so much attention granted to “privilege” as a concept these days, do you think the museum world is more receptive to how it perpetuates power asymmetries?
I think there’s a different curatorial set of responsibilities. The power that elite museums occupy and what they code for is by necessity exclusive. What a museum is is a denial of a very good amount of cultural output. A curatorial professional’s job is to say, “This is what we as a society value.” So that control and power is one akin to a cultural police. The policing of minds, the policing of legacy and history—that’s an important part of the narrative in this exhibition.
All images courtesy of the Saint Louis Art Museum.