The majority of historical Western art can be epitomized in three words: European, aristocratic, and impactful. It is often paintings of powerful and lavish white men/women or anachronistic depictions of Bible figures as white. But while the paintbrush of Caravaggio, the hands of Michelangelo, and the palette of Jan Vermeer remain in the plains of a paler past, Los Angeles native Kehinde Wiley‘s lush artistry extends into the unexplored realm of positive brown narratives.
Wiley’s most intriguing paintings are those wherein he replaces the works of European artists with faces of culturally prominent brown figures. The most famous example is Wiley’s 2009 reconstruction of Peter Paul Rueben’s Equestrian Portrait of King Phillip II into a timely laudation of Michael Jackson.
But in addition to placing mainstream achievers of brown excellence like Michael Jackson into massively important chronicles, Wiley also takes everyday brown folks and lifts them to the standards of white aristocracy. And that is where the significance of his masterpieces can truly be found.
In art, film, novels, and music there are innumerable black narratives about slavery and the ripples it has created within black identity. It would be both reckless and remiss to propose the eradication of that black pain within all media forms. However, it is also oppressive to only portray us in light of this one struggle and nothing else.
For black people, finding representation is already an arduous task. For found representation to then be a constant reminder of a history we were forced into is a slap in the face by a white hand.
Why was American Girl doll’s first black doll born into slavery? Why are all of the black characters on Pretty Little Liars evil or murdered off of the show? Why do Octavia Spencer (The Help) and Lupita N’Yongo (12 Years A Slave) have their Academy Awards for playing slaves/servants when Meryl Streep has over 10 for playing “Bitchy White Woman”? These examples all suggest that the only way to attain black representation—or for white people to want to acknowledge black existence—is if it is either in a manner that is submissive or immoral.
Living as black is, for most, enough to remember that they are black—no one needs another slave or crack addiction book, song, film, toy, or painting to remind them of that.
Wiley’s artwork provides a much-needed correlation between black people and general positivity. As he replaces white faces with those of brown people, Wiley also replaces the stigmatizing negativity painted over black people with glistening possibility.
Wiley’s pieces like Portrait of Nick Cave (Nadezhda Polovtseva) and The Three Graces redefine the stereotypes piled on black men. He gives them a softness instead of the usual thuggish and malevolent depictions. With these reinterpretations, Wiley chose to paint black men into positions previously held by white women.
In a society where black people are forced to be one type of person, Wiley’s work highlights a myriad of black capability. It is important to note, however, that often Wiley is placing black people into white narratives instead of creating his own truly positive black spaces. But isn’t that part of his purpose?
So much of what surrounds society as culturally significant is the white erasure of black culture. Placing black people directly in the subjects that white people have—and still—attempt to exterminate them from is, therefore, the most pervasive way to counteract such erasure.
The next time you see a trailer for a movie like 12 Years a Slave or Diary of A Mad Black Woman, imagine what it would be like to see the words Nicole’s Birthday flash across the screen with images of happy black people simply at a birthday party. No slavery. No drug use. No furthered marginalization. Just black happiness.