There was nothing drab about the opening night of Kehinde Wiley’s The SAM’s foyer was filled with the hippest and most diverse crowd of people I’ve ever been a part of in Seattle. The free opening gave everyone the opportunity to to witness Wiley’s godlike portraits of modern-day men and women. As I walked into the foyer, a model stood on a platform surrounded by canvases. Attendees flocked to her.
The exhibition opens with a ten-foot portrait of Michael Jackson on horseback. You’re immediately drawn to the old master style of the piece and simultaneously captivated by a familiar face of our time. The name of this piece is “Equestrian Portrait of King Philip II (Michael Jackson).” As you weave your way through the exhibit, you can’t help but lock eyes with every face Wiley has so delicately painted.
Wiley’s paintings are inspired by everyday men and women of color. They tell the universal story of how people adorn themselves, celebrate, and fall in love. Wiley has taken inspiration from his observations of street life in Harlem and combined them with traditional European style portraiture. He paints men and women in urban attire against intricate floral backgrounds. As you witness his work I encourage you to ask yourself “What does it look like to be graceful or proud in the 21st century?”
Halfway through the exhibit, you enter a dark space illuminated by light cast through stained-glass windows. Wiley wanted to “create a body of work in which empathy and the language of the religious and the rapturous all collide in one space.”
Around the corner, a video shows three girls applying mascara to their long lashes and making their way to a gallery to see their faces on Wiley’s canvases for the first time. You take your newfound knowledge of the stories behind the paintings with you as you wander through the rest of the exhibit.
“There’s something very intimate about the ways people assume by looking at certain parts of the portrait they will be able to understand who these people are, where they come from, and why they happen to be in this museum today,” Wiley said.
Each portrait towers over you drawing attention to a history of gracious representation communicating empowerment.
“A New Republic” has been displayed in museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
“In my work I try to slow down and see individuals. I’m standing on the shoulders of all of those artists that came before me. But here there’s a space for a new way in seeing black and brown bodies all over the world,” Wiley said.
My prediction is that this will be the most instagrammed SAM exhibit in 2016.
Photo by: Chloe Noonan