LIVE: Kehinde Wiley “Global Africa” Artist Talk in Washington, DC

Kehinde Wiley swag.

Visual artist, Kehinde Wiley, is so hip-hop it hurts. In 2010, he referred to himself as “post-hip-hop,” quoted in an article in Words. Beats. Life: The Global Journal of Hip-Hop Culture. But, I’m not buying it. Take for example this 2008 interview in Anthem magazine, where Wiley insists he doesn’t have any relationship to hip-hop, yet acknowledges (without making the connection) he’s a sample artist. His source? Old paintings in a European tradition of portraiture. His remixed cultural artifacts? Enormous paintings with bright, textural backgrounds where Black and brown males, primarily 18-25, take the “World Stage,” to quote the title of Wiley’s new series of global portraits. And then there was the 2005 VH1 Hip-Hop Honorees’ commission. Not to mention the 2008 inclusion in the RECOGNIZE! Hip-Hop and Contemporary Portraiture exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

In that same 2008 article in Anthem, Wiley commented:

I don’t even think that hip-hop is a function of the culture that is being produced by and large by young brown and black people all over the world. I think we’re post hip-hop. And I think it’s sort of a quaint idea that we would even be having this conversation about how hip-hop can necessarily function in the art world, because I think hip-hop is no longer with us.

He also alluded to a new generation defining hip-hop’s future. It’s both troubling and fascinating the lengths that artists in other genres will go to in order to disassociate themselves with the omnipresence of hip-hop culture.

Kehinde Wiley portrait from Blacklight Exhibition.

Here we are again discussing authenticity, hip-hop and power. #gofigure

When I annouced I would be attending Kehinde Wiley’s artist talk, the third in the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s “Global Africa” series, a friend of mine I’m gonna call Mr. D and I got into a little debate. Mr. D believes “art is about new steez done well, challenging yourself as an artist, not infinitely refining yourself.” Do you agree with Mr. D? Raise your hand if you were at the talk, or have heard Mr. Wiley speak about his own work …

Wiley also made the audience reconsider a crucial element of his own work: the “open” relationship his viewers and buyers have to coveting Black bodies versus a previously “covert” (and unhealthy) relationship in our society over the course of history. When the Nigerian-born, local Washington, DC artist, Victor Ekpuk, mentioned to Wiley that he is being “paid handsomely for his work,” Wiley casually replied, “Am I? Isn’t that relative?” He then went on to explain he doesn’t really know where his paintings go, or in whose [most likely fairer-skinned buyers’] dining rooms those Black bodies will tower. Guess who’s coming to dinner?
The same potential collectors who ask, “Are they [the men in your paintings] throwing up gang signs?” are those who will miss the painstaking hours and years Wiley has applied to perfecting pigments to reflect “radiant Blackness.” The artist noted that art students are not taught how to paint Black and brown bodies/skin tones. Another [Black] friend of mine, Mr. H, a hip-hop scholar and professor, reiterated this to me through a personal anecdote. Mr. H recalled his days as a model for art students at Georgetown University. On his first day, while he nervously trod down the hallway, barefoot and nude under his robe, an art professor grabbed him and pulled him into the department chair’s office. “Look! It’s a Black model!” he boasted. #awkward

Wiley has agonized over how to create light and a giant sense of “I will be here,” in his portraits of “urban,” Black and brown males. This, in my humble opinion, is not unlike graffiti, which begs to shout messages to those who cannot see its practitioners as relevant: “We exist. You cannot ignore or erase us!” At one point in the talk, Wiley went into a Spike Lee movie/Fight Club-type rant, questioning the perversion and sincerity in his own work, expressing his destabilization process, and ending in “F*CK Liberation! … There is nothing worse than purely intellectual masturbation.” #seen

Wiley emphasized process with a capital P above all else. He described a study of smiling he conducted, in which he asked models to smile for exactly one hour. “The smile became its own personal prison,” said the artist, and the audience–sophisticated eavesdroppers in this clever conversation–saw this to be true in the video documentation of the project.

Painter, sculptor, and photographer, we can consider Kehinde Wiley hip-hop acculturated, but not necessarily empathetic to the larger culture that bonds so many of his models. To think, Wiley’s professional portrait obsession began with a mugshot of a young man he discovered during his residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Wiley even Photoshops the eyes, lips and other features of his models to be bigger, juicier (and in turn, more “beautiful”). How hip-hop is that? In the artist’s own words, “the beat goes on,” and I’ll be nodding along to Kehinde’s steady accelerating rhythm.