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With his golden halo and gentle gaze, the man on the pedestal in the stained-glass window looks like a medieval Christian saint. But the high-top sneakers and white hoodie give it away; this is the work of the artist Kehinde Wiley.
Wiley’s portraits of young black men and other people of color — rendered in oil paintings, bronze, stained glass and video — are deliberately at odds with many images common in American mass media. A new exhibition on view until May 24 at the Brooklyn Museum offers a retrospective of his work over the last decade and, for many who attend it, continues the discussion on race and justice begun by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Zaira Simone, 26, an academic in Latin American studies, attended the exhibition on Sunday and said she was glad to see Wiley’s work highlighted in a prominent way at a public institution. “This is one of the most accessible spaces to me in the city, so the fact that they have an exhibit like this maybe could revitalize that conversation again about Black Lives Matter,” she said. "I don’t know, I just don’t find much being said about it in the mainstream media anymore."
Black Lives Matter, the racial justice campaign that emerged out of the protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri, argues that black people are too often regarded by the state and many media as expendable and not as full-fledged citizens, with the autonomy and dignity that should imply. Wiley’s work predates Ferguson, but is a powerful expression of that idea. The black men and women in Wiley’s portraits are graceful, alluring and powerful. “Typically, I think what most people see of African-Americans is either in sports or perhaps in some impoverished sense, said Michael Hall, 47, a New York-based education technology professional. “So taking that form, that figure, and putting it into religious contexts and triumphant historical pieces that are part of Western art, I think that elevates the form for a new audience."
In one 2006 painting, “Mugshot Study,” Wiley reclaims and reinterprets an image of one of the millions of black men who are, to use John Legend’s memorable phrase at this year’s Oscars, under the correctional control of the state. The reference point for the painting is a New York City Police Department mugshot. In a 2008 interview with The Art Newspaper, Wiley compared mugshots to 18th-century portraiture. "One is positioned in a way that is totally outside their control, shut down and relegated to those in power, whereas those in the other were positioning themselves in states [of grace] and self-possession,” Wiley said.
The painting transforms the grim police photograph into a delicate miniature, in oil paint, of a young man who looks “soft and vulnerable and wounded and still growing,” according to cultural critic and writer Touré.
A visitor from Oklahoma, 22-year-old Lindsey Hurtle, said that if Wiley’s work were seen more widely, it might raise important questions about racial inequality. “In Oklahoma, I think people like to ignore that these types of issues exist, and they tend to just try to brush it under the rug,” Hurtle said. “But I think that it would help to have an actual conversation. It would provoke a discussion."
Still, some say an art exhibit isn’t enough to change ingrained attitudes. “There’s a certain attitude that you receive in the art and it’s very passive in many ways,” Hall said. "So when you go into the real world … it’s a bit more challenging to be as open and see the beauty that the museum allows you to see."