Rendering: Kehinde Wiley - A New Republic
A New Republic, a series of portraits by American artist Kehinde Wiley, depict contemporary young black men and women in poses reminiscent of those in paintings by Renaissance master painters. Wiley “street casts” subjects from Harlem, Brooklyn and South Central LA neighbourhoods, photographing the subjects in their chosen postures, and later paints portraits from the photos.
As mentioned in Neighbourhood Poverty and Adolescent Development, African-Americans are overrepresented in resource-scarce neighbourhoods (Murry, Berkel, Gaylord-Harden, Copeland-Linder, pg 124). Here, Wiley has black individuals depicted in a medium that was reserved only for white people. It’s a simple and powerful substitution, highlighting the fact that art failed to represent them. The paintings may encourage the viewer to consider racial representation on a larger scale.
In Why Don't You Just Get a Job? Homeless Youth, Social Exclusion, and Employment Training, Gaetz and O'Grady present study findings revealing that many Canadians believe that "people are poor because they are lazy". This dangerous distortion is, statistically, more often a belief about black people, based on their overrepresentation in poor neighbourhoods. In his paintings, Wiley paints his contemporary subjects in their regular clothes, looking powerful and important. But It’s difficult to determine if Wiley is calling attention to pervasive stereotypes or representing the subjects’ empowerment. Perhaps he’s doing both, or leaving it open to interpretation on purpose.
I think it’s important for people—all people, but especially young people—to be shown images like these portraits. They are poignant in their depiction of black people as the subject, in a posture of power; but, more importantly these images catalyze the question: why are young black people are rarely seen positioned this way? In pedagogy, exploring Wiley’s works can work to identify implicit bias on an individual level and to incite conversation about race, class and gender.
Romano, T. (2014, February 4th). A new republic: Kehinde Wiley comes to Seattle Art Museum. The Seattle Times. Retrieved from https://www.seattletimes.com/
Kehinde Wiley Studio. http://kehindewiley.com/works/a-new-republic/