For several decades, African American artists have worked on the familiar tropes of Western art to explore its poor diversity. This method has generally centered on undermining figurative art, or portraiture, which has historically provided exposure to white Europeans, from Kara Walker’s paper cut-out silhouettes to Kerry James Marshall’s portraits (Mugan).
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At his exhibition at The National Gallery: The Prelude, Wiley insisted on diversity by utilizing recontextualization of the settings of the romantic movements. As a painter, Wiley was invited by The National Gallery to assess its collection and explore various methods of engaging with its characteristic masterpieces. He introduced himself as a black person and their representative in means that referenced the methods of Old Masters or certain art pieces, for instance, he established himself as the Hans Holbein the younger’s The Ambassadors and Jacques Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. At some point, he incorporated representations obtained from the streets, as in Harlem, or crucial models represented to him such as President Obama.
Wiley has challenged black people’s involvement in the romanticism act which has previously been based on white people. He insists on diversity in romantic work arts and inclusion of the black people. For example, in 2017, he presented ‘In Search of the Miraculous at London’s Stephen Friedman Gallery, which focused on the genre of Western marine painting, specifically works by artists who worked between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, ranging from Dutch masters Ludolf Backhuysen I and Willem van de Velde II to American artist Winslow Homer. While Wiley’s original works rarely include human heroes, it is simple to understand why he wanted to include Black characters in these settings (The Guardian). It was a time when seaborne trade and discovery were critical to European nations’ economy and strength as they formed economic ties with Africa and eventually built empires, particularly in North and South America, including the Caribbean islands, resulting in the expansion of the slave trade.
He has supported diversity in art and gallery work by how he represents historical and current issues such as race, identity, and climate with great enthusiasm and poignancy. He has strived to provide a chance for people to have a fresh view of the National Gallery’s celebrated pieces. His desire to remake the historical European paintings is based on the need for finding a feeling of belonging in an area that feels strange (Zwegat). “We know that museums and institutions, like art, have to respond to the world that they’re in, to stay current, to survive, to correspond to the society that surrounds them,” he said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to take a stodgy old language and breathe into it the vibrant now” (The Guardian).
Wiley’s flâneur tendencies are admirable; they have led him to pick up many people in places that are not often considered hotspots for model scouting, such as Dalston’s Ridley Road market, where he found Melissa Thompson in 2019. In a painting that has since been bought by the V&A, he portrayed her sitting in a Regency-style chair against a backdrop of William Morris wallpaper. He did an open call and street casting in south London for the upcoming show. Instead of photographing the models in his studio, he flew them to Norway and photographed them in the fjords against snow-capped mountain backdrops.
Mugan, C. “Kehinde Wiley: Radically Rethinking Romanticism at The National Gallery | Art UK.” Art UK, 2022.
The Guardian.”Artist Kehinde Wiley: ‘The New Work is About What It Feels Like to Be Young, Black, and Alive in the 21st Century.” The Guardian, 2021. Web.
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Zwegat, Zoë. Diversity, Inclusion, and the Visitor-Centered Art Museum: A Case Study of the Columbus Museum of Art. Diss. The Ohio State University, 2019.