A Review of a New Republic Show by Kehinde Wiley at the Seattle Art Museum



AReview of a New Republic Show by Kehinde Wiley at the Seattle ArtMuseum

AReview of a New Republic Show by Kehinde Wiley at the Seattle ArtMuseum

TheNew Republic Show will be held at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM)between February 11 and May 8, 2016 at the Simonyi Special ExhibitionGalleries. Kehinde has been a leading American Portraiture tradition.Since ancient times artists have used portraits as a means ofrepresenting power, churches, courts, and other forms of social lifethat affect our lives.

Asan artist, Wiley has been especially drawn to the grand aristocraticportraits dating back to the 18thcentury. Since the early 2000s, Wiley began working on his portraitsduring a residency at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Wiley trained inYale and has focused to photograph and recast assertive andself-empowering young African Americans in their daily lives. In mostof his works, he has cast African sportsmen and women and rap stars.In most of his actions or portraits, he has concentrated on issues ofidentity politics and personal insights in his practices. The goodthing is that Wiley’s portraits are highly staged and stylized anddraw a lot of attention to the history of aristocratic nature ofhumans as statements of power as well as individualsself-empowerment.


Wiley’scollection mainly deals with the celebration of splendor and luxuryusing ordinary citizens that he meets in the streets. This is incomparison to ancient times when most portraits were commissioned bya patron who requested for a portrait be done. The importance of aperson’s role in society especially those of royalty or aristocracythat inherited their power out of divine right. However, in hisportraiture, Wiley uses mainly African Americans to pose for theportraits wearing ordinary clothes. This in a way brings out thedifference of both periods as the use of black sitters instead of theoriginal European sitters portrays a sense of power and authority onthe part of the African.

Forthis analysis, a comparison of Portrait of a Venetian Ambassador,Aged 59, II, 2006, Two Heroic Sisters of the Grassland, 2011, andSupport the Rural Population and Serve 500 Million Peasants, 2007will be done. As noted above Wiley’s version is different from thenormal portraits of the eighteenth century. Surprisingly, Wiley usesmugshots of African Americans in his portraits. Surprisingly, in hisworks the mugshots are not offensive as it would naturally be thecase.

Oneperfect example that Wiley uses in the “Portrait of a VenetianAmbassador, Aged 59, II. In this portrait instead of using a whiteadult of probably the same age and wearing official robes, Wiley usesa young African American man probably in the early 20s wearing casualhip-hop attire with a casual appearance. This contradiction presentsas case of young African men conscious of their image. The agedifference, race, demeanor, and class are all presented in thisclassic example. Additionally, the portrait does not follow thedoctrine of the sitter being in control. Rather in this case, thephotographer is in control as he allows the sitter to choose a poseof their choice. This is one factor that allows the portraits to beunique in their own way.

Wileyalso deviates from the norm by swapping between male and femalecharacters in his portraits.

Oneclear depiction of this is the portraiture of “Two Heroic Sistersof the Grassland, 2011.” In this portrait, Wiley swaps betweenfemale and male sitters. Instead of using female sitters, Wiley usesmale sitters. By doing this, Wiley is trying to send a message to thereader that suggests the interpretation of the picture could rely ona person’s sexual identity. This is because by replacing a womanwith a man in the portrait could suggest a fondness of one gender toanother. Additionally it could also be taken to show a personalchoice of sexual orientation. Generally, people will associate withthe opposite sex, but making such adjustments means that it is up tothe viewer to make their own judgments.

Inanother portrait “Support the Rural Population and Serve 500Million Peasants, 2007” is another portrait that portrays adifferent subject. While the first two seem to be based on personalroles, thoughts, and life, this portrait revolves aroundhumanitarianism. In the portrait, a young African adult is picturedcarrying what looks like a doctor’s bag briskly walking to anunidentified location. The portrait makes the reader/viewer want tohelp save 500 million peasants if it is possible to do so bysupporting the rural population. Africans, especially those residingin rural populations have a multitude of problems, and thus thisportrait does a great job of reminding the viewer of this fact. Thatis why Wiley uses the portrait of an African man carrying a doctor’sbag in order to make the viewer more aware of the issue.

Byanalyzing the tree pictures, it is clear that the painter does nothave a general theme. This is because it appears that the artistprefers to tackle different topics or themes on different portraits.The artist’s portraits are different from those I have previouslyencountered. For instance the use of African Americans to representwhite or Caucasian subjects is particularly striking. The artist alsomakes sure that the presentation of the black subjects is done in thesitters own style. This makes it impossible to first understand whatthe artist is portraying before reading the message/caption. If itwere not for the captions, it would be very easy for viewers tomisrepresent or misunderstand what the painter had in mind. Forexample, the depiction of Saint John the Baptist in the wilderness asa beautiful African girl can easily pass the viewers attention, asthey will try to imagine something else, if they are not accustomedto the artists’ style of painting. Most of the works done byKehinde Wiley are presented on oil on canvas. Oil on canvas is apopular and inexpensive painting technique that has been used forcenturies. This is probably why Wiley choose to use this technique.In addition, oil on canvas paintings tend to be durable and this is agood quality especially when painters want to preserve their paintingfor a long time.


Thework of Kehinde Wiley seems to cut across several themes, cultures,age groups, and races. By carefully analyzing the portraits, it isclear that the artist takes time in choosing his sitters as he doesnot only choose random subjects. By mixing gender roles, the artistshows the viewer his concern for gender equality. That is why Wileywill comfortably switch a woman for a man and vice versa and still goon to represent his portrait.


SeattleArt Museum. (2016). Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic. Retrieved fromhttp://www.seattleartmuseum.org/wiley