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Exploring the Depths of Kehinde Wiley’s Artistic Realm: An Archaeology of Silence at MFAH

Kehinde Wiley’s thought-provoking new collection through May 27

Kehinde Wiley (Photo by Frank Xavier)

In 2017, former President Barack Obama commissioned Kehinde Wiley to paint his official portrait, unveiled to the public in 2018. This pivotal moment catapulted Wiley, a respected figure within the art community, to widespread national recognition. Notably, Wiley also made history as the first Black gay artist to create an official portrait of a US president. While previously known for his portraits of Black men, Wiley currently creates monumental paintings and sculptures of both genders. And now, in Houston, his artwork on display for public viewing.

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH) is currently showing Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence, the artist’s latest collection produced amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the senseless murder of young Black people, and the widespread emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Having made its debut earlier this year at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, MFAH is only the second space in the US to showcase this impressive collection.

“I am unearthing the specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people.” —Kehinde Wiley

Wiley’s latest body of work is both haunting and beautiful. Exhibition curator Dr. Anita Bateman says that entering into the exhibit has been described as “walking into a chapel or even a tomb.” The space is dark, quiet, and meditative. As you enter, you are met with a quote from Wiley describing his title An Archaeology of Silence: “That is the archaeology I am unearthing: the specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and brown people all over the world.” It’s both a description of what’s to come and almost a warning that what you are going to see will be difficult to face. The experience of Black trauma and suffering will confront viewers, yet notably, among the two dozen artworks and bronzes, only a few images make direct eye contact with the observer. The rest have their eyes closed, perhaps in a peaceful sleep or in death.

There is an eroticism and sensuality in death that Wiley appears to fetishize. Figures are posed horizontally, their bodies contorted and writhing in a state of ecstasy. They are depicted wearing modern clothes and sneakers.

Foreground: Kehinde Wiley, The Young Tarentine (Mamadou Gueye), 2021, bronze. Background: Young Tarentine I (Babacar Mané), 2022, after Alexandre Schoenewerk’s 1871 sculpture. (Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Templon. © 2021 Kehinde Wiley)

One painting from 2022, Femme piquée par un serpent (Mamadou Gueye), shows a man lying in nature amongst flowers and an ornate background, a signature of the artist. He wears a bright yellow shirt covered in the Louis Vuitton LV monogram. But pay close attention. A closer look at the shirt reveals tags showing it is not a genuine Louis Vuitton shirt. Wiley elevates every intricate detail within his artwork. Whether it’s the meticulous rendering of accessories, the intricate braiding of the model’s hair, or the inclusion of stylish sneakers, each element is imbued with significance and intentionality.

Wiley reimagines and reshapes conventional portrayals found within Greek myths and Christian iconography, infusing them with contemporary perspectives and cultural contexts. He portrays Christ and other deceased or incapacitated figures by featuring contemporary Black men and women as the focal points of his compositions. Images are named after famous figures in works of art, such as St. Cecilia, Achilles, and Morpheus, giving them an infinite and larger-than-life quality.

While none of Wiley’s art explicitly depicts homosexuality, much of his work has homoerotic qualities. The artist pays close attention to male figures. He investigates masculinity and works to destabilize it. By situating masculine figures within elaborate floral backdrops, Wiley challenges traditional perceptions of masculinity. Additionally, the way in which Wiley positions his figures and how he paints them switches the feminine and masculine roles, disrupting gender narratives. Take Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Traditionally depicted as a male, Wiley paints Morpheus as a modern-day female awake and looking like she has been disturbed.

Arguably one of the most remarkable sculptures is the monumental 13-foot bronze equestrian statue titled An Archaeology of Silence (2021). This sculpture portrays a shirtless Black man draped across the saddle of a horse, commanding attention with its towering presence. Dr. Bateman explains that, due to its size, the 7,000-pound bronze had to be transported in three separate pieces and assembled upon arrival at MFAH. Occupying an entire room, the piece evokes comparisons to Confederate statues, yet diverges significantly; here, the figure is depicted in a horizontal, vulnerable position, symbolizing the collective vulnerability of ordinary individuals. It serves as a poignant reminder of a nation’s failure to safeguard its citizens.

The MFAH exhibit comprises a monumental collection of Wiley’s paintings and sculptures. Some paintings are more than 25 feet wide, taking up entire rooms. Through deliberate scale manipulation, the series exalts its subjects to a heroic stature, a departure from the traditional portrayal of reclining or fallen figures in Western art. This truly impressive collection honors and memorializes its subjects, all while allowing the viewer to see the faces and the humanity of the fallen, to say their names, and to become stronger advocates for racial justice.

Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence will be at MFAH through May 27.

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David Brasher

David Brasher received his Masters degree in English from the University of Louisiana. He has contributed to national publications such as Instinct Magazine and Buzzfeed as well as local publications in Nashville. He moved to Houston in 2022 and spends his free time watching CNN and listening to true crime podcasts.
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