The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
is exhibiting Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence, the artists new, monumental body of work created against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, the murder of George Floyd and the global rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. The exhibition had its US premiere earlier this year at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Expanding upon American artist Kehinde Wileys Down series from 2008, An Archaeology of Silence meditates on the deaths of young Black people slain all over the world. These 26 works stand as elegies and monuments, underscoring the fraught terms in which Black people are rendered visible, especially when at the hands of systemic violence. Wiley has said, That is the archaeology I am unearthing: The specter of police violence and state control over the bodies of young Black and Brown people all over the world.
Kehinde Wiley's elegies, at once sublimely beautiful and deeply disturbing, are profoundly moving, even unforgettable. We are very proud to exhibit them at the Museum and participate in this national tour, commented Gary Tinterow, Director, the Margaret Alkek Williams Chair, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The artists 2008 Down series featured a group of large-scale portraits of young Black men inspired by Hans Holbein the Youngers The Dead Christ in the Tomb (152122). For Wiley, Holbeins painting triggered an ongoing investigation into the iconography of death and sacrifice in Western art, which he traced across religious, mythological, and historical subjects. An Archaeology of Silence reconceptualizes this research into paintings and sculptures that confront the legacies of colonialism through the visual language of the fallen figure. The resulting paintings of Black people struck down, wounded, resting, or dead, all referencing iconic historical paintings of heroes, martyrs, or saints, offer a haunting meditation on the violence against Black and Brown people through the imagery of European art-historical references.
Kehinde Wiley: An Archaeology of Silence contains some of the largest paintings and sculptures Wiley has created to date, as well as some of the smallest. The series uses scale to elevate the people depicted to heroic status, generally absent from the depictions of the recumbent or fallen figure in Western art (including those that Wileys works have been based on). It marks an important departure in the artists work which, with the notable exception of Down, has been primarily concerned with verticality and elevation, projecting Black youth into positions of power and grace by painting them into compositions inspired by canonical Western portraits such as Anthony van Dycks Charles I at the Hunt (1636) or Jacques-Louis Davids Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801), among many others.
Created against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, Wiley had to forgo his usual practice of street casting; he instead worked with residents, staff, and friends of Black Rock, a residency program he established in 2019 in Dakar, Senegal, and where he spent most of his time during the international lockdown. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, Wiley saw an opportunity to broaden the conversation beyond national concerns. The figures personal markers of Senegalese and West African culture, with regard to hair in particular, serve as a metaphor for the many places where you find systematically oppressed communities
Kehinde Wiley (b. 1977, Los Angeles) is an American artist best known for his portraits that render people of color in the traditional settings of Old Master paintings. Wileys work brings art history face-to-face with contemporary culture, using the visual rhetoric of the heroic, the powerful, the majestic and the sublime to celebrate Black and Brown people the artist has met throughout the world. Working in the mediums of painting, sculpture, and video, Wileys portraits challenge and reorient art-historical narratives, awakening complex issues that many would prefer remain muted.
In 2018, Wiley became the first African-American artist to paint an official U.S. Presidential portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. Former U.S. President Barack Obama selected Wiley for this honor. In 2019, Wiley founded Black Rock Senegal, a multidisciplinary artist-in-residence program that invites artists from around the world to live and create work in Dakar, Senegal. Wiley is the recipient of the U.S. Department of States Medal of Arts, Harvard Universitys W.E.B. Du Bois Medal, and Frances distinction of Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters. He holds a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute, an MFA from Yale University, and honorary doctorates from the Rhode Island School of Design and San Francisco Art Institute. He has held solo exhibitions throughout the United States and internationally and his works are included in the collections of over 50 public institutions around the world. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Wileys work was recently presented in the exhibitions The Obama Portraits Tour (2022) and Portrait of Courage: Gentileschi, Wiley and the Story of Judith (2023). He lives and works in Beijing, Dakar, and New York.