No Poser Here: Acclaimed Artist Kehinde Wiley Paints Black Masculinity Anew

By Banks, Andre | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

No Poser Here: Acclaimed Artist Kehinde Wiley Paints Black Masculinity Anew


Banks, Andre, Colorlines Magazine


Kehinde Wiley talks about passing and posing--the themes of his critically acclaimed paintings--with an infectious excitement. Surrounded by the giant canvasses that line the walls of his studio, the artist is earnest and modest; his inspirations are as playful and original as his art work about Black masculinity.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For his Passing/Posing series, Wiley says he wanted to explore whether Black masculinity is "defined by hypersexuality, anti social behavior and a propensity towards sports, or is it something that is more authentic and elusive?"

The artist approached Black men in Harlem and had them pose to emulate the iconography of classical European painting. The paintings, which now go for at least $20.000, have graced the cover of the prestigious Art in America magazine and won praise for Wiley, who has completed a residency at Harlem's Studio Museum, and exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum and Deitch Projects in New York.

In his Passing/Posing paintings, Wiley reshapes and plays with popular constructions of Black masculinity, giving new meaning to old poses and historical context to contemporary style. The artist was driven by several provocative questions: "How is it that they arrived in these poses? What are they passing for? What is this universe that's being created?"

The Immediacy of the Pose

The path to success for Wiley started at the age of 11 when his mother enrolled him in a free arts program funded by the city of Los Angeles. He went on to attend the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. "I always felt this was going to be a life for me," he says on a summer afternoon at his studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "I always felt like this would be something that I would do--whether I was a professional artist full-time or an artist who had a day job supporting my art habit."

His love of art and desire for advanced formal training took him to the San Francisco Art Institute and then East to pursue an MFA at Yale University. After graduating, he accepted an offer to serve as artist-in-residence at the prestigious Studio Museum in New York City's Harlem, a move that would have a significant impact on both his career and methodology.

Describing himself as "ignorant of [the Studio Museum's] stature," he focused his early time there experimenting with the bustling Harlem community, similar yet very different to his home of South Central L.A. "In the space of five blocks you get the chance to shop, eat, peacock, parade and be seen," says the artist. "It's violent in the shocking immediacy of people's presence. For me, its incredibly engaging ... something I wanted to somehow grapple with in my work."

This desire to connect his new community and his work led to the early stages of creating the Passing/Posing series. Wiley walked those five blocks in Harlem showing men photos of his portraits and urging them to become a subject themselves. The approach initially yielded traditional studies of what he calls "alpha-male types. People who had this sort of energy surrounding them." From those works, Wiley began discussing art history with these models, eventually having them thumb through his art books and choose poses to recreate. It was an important turn that, along with the motivation to challenge the viewer's ability to step into the still image, led to the creation of the ongoing series. …

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